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Gillpatrick v. Sabatka-Rine

Supreme Court of Nebraska

September 29, 2017

Paul Gillpatrick and Niccole Wetherell, appellees.
v.
Diane Sabatka-Rine et al., appellants.

         1. Jurisdiction: Appeal and Error. Before reaching the legal issues presented for review, it is the duty of an appellate court to determine whether it has jurisdiction over the matter before it.

         2. Jurisdiction: Final Orders: Appeal and Error. For an appellate court to acquire jurisdiction of an appeal, there must be a final order entered by the court from which the appeal is taken; conversely, an appellate court is without jurisdiction to entertain appeals from nonfinal orders.

         3. Statutes: States. State courts are bound by the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of federal statutes.

         4. Attorney Fees: Civil Rights. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (2012), for a plaintiff to be eligible for attorney fees as a prevailing party, the plaintiff must have obtained a judgment on the merits, a consent decree, or some other judicially enforceable settlement, which materially alters the legal relationship of the parties in a way that benefits the plaintiff. In addition to prevailing on the merits of at least some of its claims, a plaintiff must also show that its court victory advanced the purpose behind Congress' allowance of an attorney fee award: ensuring that financial barriers do not prevent plaintiffs from privately enforcing federal civil rights laws.

         5.: . Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (2012), a party is not entitled to seek attorney fees until after it becomes eligible for the fees as a prevailing party.

         6. Judgments: Attorney Fees: Civil Rights. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (2012), a prevailing party's right to attorney fees cannot be limited by a local rule; for state law actions, a party is required to request attorney fees before the court enters an order or judgment.

         7. Judgments: Final Orders: Attorney Fees: Civil Rights. In an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012), a party is not required to [297 Neb. 881] separately move for attorney fees until after the trial court enters a final order or judgment on the merits.

         8. Summary Judgment: Appeal and Error. An appellate court will affirm a lower court's grant of summary judgment if the pleadings and admitted evidence show that there is no genuine issue as to any material facts or as to the ultimate inferences that may be drawn from those facts and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         9. _:. In reviewing a summary judgment, an appellate court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the judgment was granted and gives that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences deducible from the evidence.

         10. Judgments: Appeal and Error. An appellate court independently reviews questions of law decided by a lower court.

         11. Constitutional Law. The determination of constitutional requirements presents a question of law.

         12. Statutes. Statutory interpretation presents a question of law.

         13. Immunity: Public Officers and Employees. The State's sovereign immunity does not bar actions to restrain state officials or to compel them to perform an act they are legally required to do unless the prospective relief would require them to expend public funds.

         14. Actions: Civil Rights: Public Officers and Employees: Liability. A state official's liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012) turns on the capacity in which the state official was sued, not on the capacity in which the defendant acted.

         15. _:::. State officials sued in their individual capacities can be personally liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012) for an action taken under color of state law that deprived the plaintiff of a federal right.

         16. Constitutional Law: Public Officers and Employees: Immunity. The 11th Amendment bars a suit against state officials when the State is the real, substantial party in interest.

         17. _::. When the State or an arm of the State is named as a defendant, 11th Amendment immunity is not limited to suits seeking damages; absent a waiver, it bars a suit regardless of the relief sought.

         18. _: _:. Under the doctrine of Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 28 S.Ct. 441, 52 L.Ed. 714 (1908), a state's 11th Amendment immunity does not bar a suit against state officials when the plaintiff seeks only prospective relief for ongoing violations of federal rights.

         19. Actions: Civil Rights: Public Officers and Employees: Liability. State officials sued in their official capacities for injunctive relief are persons under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012), because official capacity actions for prospective relief are not treated as actions against the State.

         [297 Neb. 882] 20. Actions: Public Officers and Employees: Immunity. A personal capacity suit against a state official does not implicate sovereign immunity, because the plaintiff seeks recovery from the official personally- not from the state's treasury.

         21. Actions: Civil Rights: Public Officers and Employees: Liability. When a plaintiff in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012) seeks injunctive relief to compel state officials to comply with federal law, the claim is available only against a state official sued in his or her official capacity.

         Appeal from the District Court for Lancaster County: Robert R. Otte, Judge. Reversed and remanded with instructions.

          Douglas J. Peterson, Attorney General, and David A. Lopez for appellants.

          Amy Miller, of ACLU of Nebraska Foundation, and Michael D. Gooch for appellees Paul Gillpatrick and Niccole Wetherell.

          Heavican, C.J., Wright, Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Kelch, and Funke, JJ.

          FUNKE, JUDGE.

         NATURE OF CASE

         The appellants, Diane Sabatka-Rine, Denise Skrobecki, and Michael L. Kenney, were state officials in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (Department). More specifically, Kenney was the Department's director; Sabatka-Rine was the warden at the Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP); and Skrobecki was the warden at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (NCCW). The appellees, Paul Gillpatrick and Niccole Wetherell, are inmates at different prison facilities who sued the state officials in their individual capacities for interfering with the inmates' request to marry. The Department denied the inmates' request under an internal policy that it does not transport an inmate to another facility for a marriage ceremony. Additionally, the inmates were denied a marriage ceremony via videoconferencing because [297 Neb. 883] the Department interprets Neb. Rev. Stat. § 42-109 (Reissue 2016) to require that the inmates both appear physically before an officiant.

         The district court ruled that the Department's policy impermissibly burdened the inmates' right to marry and that its interpretation of § 42-109 was constitutionally flawed. The court sustained the inmates' motion for summary judgment, denied the state officials' motion for summary judgment, and enjoined the state officials and their agents from denying the inmates a marriage ceremony via videoconference or enforcing the Department's policy that rested on its flawed interpretation of § 42-109.

         Assuming, without deciding, that the court's decision was correct on the merits, we nonetheless reverse. We conclude that the court erred in granting the inmates injunctive relief. We conclude that in a civil rights action filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012), state officials can only be sued for injunctive relief in their official capacities. Accordingly, we remand the cause with instructions for the court to vacate its order.

         JURISDICTION

         The parties dispute whether the state officials have appealed from a final judgment or order; as a result, we address that issue first. Before reaching the legal issues presented for review, it is the duty of an appellate court to determine whether it has jurisdiction over the matter before it.[1] For an appellate court to acquire jurisdiction of an appeal, there must be a final order entered by the court from which the appeal is taken; conversely, an appellate court is without jurisdiction to entertain appeals from nonfinal orders.[2]

         The court's order required the state officials to pay all costs but it did not determine attorney fees, which the inmates had requested in their amended complaint. The officials filed their [297 Neb. 884] notice of appeal before the court took any action regarding attorney fees.

         The inmates moved the Nebraska Court of Appeals to dismiss the appeal because the district court had not entered a final order when the officials filed their appeal. They asserted that their motion for attorney fees and costs was set for a hearing before the defendants filed their appeal. They argued that under our holding in Kilgore v. Nebraska Dept. of Health & Human Servs., [3] the defendants had not appealed from a final order.

         In Kilgore, [4] we held that the court's failure to address the request for attorney fees in its order left a portion of the judgment unresolved. This failure meant that the order was not final for purposes of appeal.

         The plaintiff in Kilgore requested attorney fees in her petition. At the close of the evidence, the court announced its ruling from the bench, a portion of which was in the plaintiff's favor, and stated that it would make a determination regarding attorney fees after it calculated her damages. In a subsequent written order, the court reiterated its ruling in favor of the plaintiff and set forth her damages. However, the court's order did not rule on her request for attorney fees. The plaintiff then filed an application for attorney fees, and the defendants filed their appeal.

         In addressing the issue of attorney fees, we stated that the plaintiff had properly requested attorney fees in her pleading. We also emphasized that before the court issued its written order, it had announced its ruling from the bench and stated that it would determine attorney fees after calculating damages. We concluded that the court's failure to address the request in its order left a portion of the judgment unresolved, which failure meant that the order was unappealable.

         [297 Neb. 885] The state officials in the present matter argued that under Olson v. Palagi[5] and Murray v. Stine,[6] the district court's order was final, because the inmates failed to move for attorney fees before the court entered its judgment. They did not dispute that the inmates' application for attorney fees was pending before the district court when they filed their notice of appeal. But they argued that under our case law, the court's silence in its order was a denial of a fee award because the inmates had not filed a separate motion for the award. And they argued that holding the order was not final would leave the losing litigants uncertain whether to appeal from a judgment on the merits.

         In Olson, [7] a father sought a modification of his child support obligation. In the mother's answer, she requested attorney fees and costs, which are authorized under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 42-351 (Reissue 2016). After the court denied a modification, the mother filed a separate application for attorney fees and costs. The father appealed the order denying a modification before the scheduled hearing on the mother's application. While the appeal was pending, the district court dismissed the mother's application for lack of prosecution. But after the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment on the merits, the district court conducted a hearing on the mother's application, and the father appealed again from the court's fee award.

         We vacated the district court's order, concluding that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the mother's application for a fee award. We reasoned that the district court, by its silence, had implicitly denied the mother's request "under these circumstances."[8] We noted that the order denying the father's complaint to modify did not address the mother's request for attorney fees in her answer. And in a docket entry, the court [297 Neb. 886] had stated that there was "'[n]othing under advisement.'"[9]We stated that attorney fees are generally treated as costs and that parties seeking attorney fees must request them before the court issues a judgment. We concluded that the mother's application for attorney fees had failed to revive the issue because she did not move for a new trial or an amended order and because she did not raise the court's failure to award attorney fees in a cross-appeal. We reasoned that the parties and the Court of Appeals had treated the trial court's order as final, which could have been true only if it had denied attorney fees. We held that after the district court's judgment was final, it lacked jurisdiction to award attorney fees because the mother no longer had any means of challenging its earlier, implicit denial of fees.

         In Murray, [10] a 2015 case, the defendants had sought a fee award under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-824 (Reissue 2016), some defendants in their answer and some in a motion filed before the court entered its summary judgment. The court's summary judgment orders were silent on the issue of attorney fees. We stated that under Olson, a judgment's silence '"on the issue of attorney fees must be construed as a denial of . . . the request.'"[11] In contrast, we stated if a litigant separately moves for attorney fees before the court enters a judgment on the merits, the order or judgment is not appealable until the court disposes of the request for attorney fees. There, we reasoned that even if the court's summary judgments had "implicitly denied the requests for attorney fees included in the respective answers, it clearly did not dispose of the separate motions for attorney fees."[12] We noted that a hearing on the motions had been scheduled before the court entered its summary judgments and concluded that the court's silence could not be considered [297 Neb. 887] a denial of a fee award under those circumstances. We held that the summary judgments were not final, appealable orders because "the absence of a ruling on attorney fees left a portion of the judgment unresolved."[13]

         In the instant case, the Court of Appeals denied summary dismissal, noting that neither party had supplemented the record or included a copy of the inmates' application for attorney fees with the appellate filings. But it concluded that the order was final under Murray and Olson, because the inmates did not separately move for attorney fees before the court issued its summary judgment. We subsequently moved this case to our docket pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 24-1106(3) (Reissue 2016).

         Though our holding in Kilgore may seem contrary to our holdings in Olson and Murray, the facts of the cases are distinguishable. In Kilgore, the court had announced from the bench that it would determine attorney fees after it calculated the plaintiff's damages, while in Olson and Murray, the courts were silent as to attorney fees altogether. However, we conclude that the instant case is distinguishable from all three cases because it is a § 1983 action and, as a result, our prior jurisprudence is inapplicable.

         Because this is primarily a § 1983 action and the court implicitly granted relief on that claim, the inmates' right to attorney fees is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) (2012): "In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of [specified civil rights statutes, including § 1983], the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . . ."

         State courts are bound by the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of federal statutes, including § 1988.[14] Under § 1988, for a plaintiff to be eligible for attorney fees as a [297 Neb. 888] prevailing party, the plaintiff must have obtained a judgment on the merits, a consent decree, or some other judicially enforceable settlement, which materially alters the legal relationship of the parties in a way that benefits the plaintiff[15] In addition to prevailing on the merits of at least some of its claims, [16] a plaintiff must also show that its court victory advanced the purpose behind Congress' allowance of an attorney fee award: ensuring that financial barriers do not prevent plaintiffs from privately enforcing federal civil rights laws.[17]

         "[T]he fees authorized by § 1988 [are] 'an integral part of the remedies necessary to obtain' compliance with § 1983."[18]But the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the time limits for a motion to amend or alter a judgment have no application to a postjudgment request for attorney fees under ยง 1988, because the motion ...


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