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Gillpatrick v. Frakes

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

August 21, 2019

SCOTT FRAKES, Director, in his official capacity; MICHELE CAPPS, Warden, in her official capacity; and ANGELA FOLTS-OBERLE, Acting Warden, in her official capacity, Defendants.


          Robert F. Rossiter, Jr., United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on plaintiffs Paul Gillpatrick (“Gillpatrick”) and Niccole Wetherell's (“Wetherell” and collectively, “plaintiffs”) Request for Attorney Fees and Request for Taxable Costs (Filing No. 60) against defendants Scott Frakes, in his official capacity as Director of Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (“NDCS”), Michele Capps (“Capps”), in her official capacity as Warden of Nebraska State Penitentiary (“NSP”), and Angela Folts-Oberle (“Folts-Oberle” and collectively, “defendants”), in her official capacity as Acting Warden of Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (“NCCW”). For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The plaintiffs are state prisoners serving lengthy sentences in separate NDCS facilities. Since 2012, the plaintiffs have made requests at their respective facilities to marry. NDCS staff repeatedly rejected those requests, in part because neither Gillpatrick nor Wetherell can be transported to another NDCS facility for a marriage ceremony out of security concerns. The plaintiffs exhausted their available NDCS procedures to obtain permission to marry and moved to the courts. The plaintiffs' legal battle has two chapters: (1) the state chapter and (2) the federal chapter.

         The state chapter began on February 25, 2014, when the plaintiffs sued NDCS, Diana Sabatka-Rine (“Sabatka-Rine, ” then-Warden of NSP), Denise Skrobecki (“Skrobecki, ” then-Warden of NCCW), and Michael Kenney (“Kenney, ” then-Director of NDCS) in the District Court of Lancaster County, Nebraska (“state court”), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief based on their constitutional right to marry. On June 10, 2014, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint naming only Sabatka-Rine, Skrobecki, and Kenney in their individual capacities (“state defendants”).

         In state court, the plaintiffs requested an electronic wedding ceremony (“e-wedding ceremony”) using Skype (an electronic-communication application) or similar videoconferencing technology. The state defendants resisted that request based on their understanding that Nebraska law strictly mandates actual physical presence of wedding participants. See Neb. Rev. Stat. § 42-109. On the plaintiffs' motion, the state court granted summary judgment in the plaintiffs' favor on February 2, 2016. See Gillpatrick v. Neb. Dep't of Corr. Servs., Case CI14-669 (Neb. Dist. Ct. Feb. 2, 2016).

         The state defendants appealed that decision, however, and on September 29, 2017, the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed and remanded on procedural grounds, with instructions to vacate. See Gillpatrick v. Sabatka-Rine, 902 N.W.2d 115');">902 N.W.2d 115, 119 (Neb. 2017). On January 2, 2018, the plaintiffs again amended their complaint, naming Skrobecki, Robert Madsen (then-Warden of NSP), and Frakes in their official capacities.

         On January 23, 2018, the federal chapter of the plaintiffs' legal battle began when the case was removed (Filing No. 1) to this Court. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1441(a). In this Court, the plaintiffs again sought an order requiring the defendants to allow them to participate in an e-wedding ceremony.

         The plaintiffs and the defendants both moved for summary judgment (Filing Nos. 51 and 48, respectively). In a Memorandum and Order (Filing No. 56) and accompanying judgment (Filing No. 57), dated June 7, 2019, the Court granted in part and denied in part both motions. Relevant to the present motion, the Court permanently enjoined the defendants and their successors and designees from denying the plaintiffs' request to participate in an e-wedding ceremony, awarded the plaintiffs taxable costs against the defendants, and directed the plaintiffs to submit a request for attorney fees.

         On June 21, 2019, the plaintiffs filed the present motion seeking $116, 742.50 in attorney fees and $2, 749.43 in “taxable costs.” The defendants responded (Filing No. 69) by conditionally stipulating[1] to the reasonableness of the plaintiffs' request for attorney fees incurred during the federal chapter of the plaintiffs' legal battle. The defendants, however, resist any fee award for the “unsuccessful work” in state court.


         A. Legal Standard

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, the Court may award reasonable attorney fees to a prevailing party in an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d); NECivR 54.3. A plaintiff is a prevailing party “when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.” Doe v. Nixon, 716 F.3d 1041, 1048 (8th Cir. 2013) (quoting Advantage Media, LLC v. City of Hopkins, 511 F.3d 833, 836 (8th Cir. 2008)).

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) limits the recovery of attorney fees in actions brought by prisoners “confined to any jail, prison or other correctional facility.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1). Relevant here, the PLRA (1) only allows attorney fees “directly and reasonably incurred in proving an actual violation of the plaintiff's rights protected by [§ 1983], ” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1)(A), and (2) limits the hourly rate for the fee award to 150 percent of the ...

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