United States District Court, D. Arizona
V. Wake, Senior United States District Judge.
Cleopatria Martinez (“Martinez”) brought this
action against her employer Maricopa County Community College
District (“District”) and its Chancellor Rufus
Glasper (“Glasper”). On November 1, 2017, this
Court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants. (Doc.
91.) Now before the Court are Defendants' Motion for
Attorneys' Fees (Doc. 95), the Response, and the Reply.
is a math instructor at Phoenix College. She would copy math
problems from copyrighted texts and compile them in her own
course materials packets. District officials worried the fair
use doctrine did not cover Martinez's copying and, given
the District's possible exposure to copyright liability,
ordered her to stop reproducing copyrighted materials.
Martinez was required to obtain the approval of the
department chair before printing her course materials, but
she went behind the chair's back and continued to copy
District reacted by imposing more severe restrictions,
requiring Martinez to use only math department materials or
books sold in the bookstore. Rather than complying, Martinez
chose to copy materials off campus at a local Staples store.
She required students to use these materials and offered them
to students at cost or let them copy the materials on their
own. When Martinez's behavior was discovered, Phoenix
College's President ordered her to reimburse the students
with whom she had transacted. She did not.
District decided to terminate Martinez's employment.
Martinez was accused of violating copyright law, breaking
District cash-handling rules by transacting directly with
students, and acting insubordinately. Martinez had a day-long
hearing before a three-faculty-member Hearing Committee.
After considering all the evidence, the Committee concluded
as follows: (1) conflicting experts made it unclear whether
Martinez had violated copyright law; (2) it was also unclear
whether Martinez violated the cash-handling policy; and (3)
Martinez intentionally failed to comply with the clear order
to issue refunds and was therefore willfully insubordinate.
The Committee recommended Martinez not be terminated in light
of her long service.
Glasper accepted that recommendation. (Had he not, he would
have had to make a contrary recommendation to the Governing
Board to proceed further with termination.) Relying on the
Hearing Committee's findings that Martinez was willfully
insubordinate, he then suspended Martinez for thirteen
months. The Governing Board is not required to review or
approve suspensions, but Martinez did appear before it
multiple times to argue the suspension should be overturned.
filed this lawsuit on September 2, 2015. Her exact claims
have continuously proven elusive. In her Amended Complaint,
Martinez alleged that her thirteen-month suspension was a de
facto termination. (Doc. 14 at ¶ 16.) She brought a due
process claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. But she also
appeared to claim that the District failed to follow its own
state law rules by “firing” her under the
suspension process rather than the termination process.
Court rejected all claims. Martinez was entitled to the
federal minima of due process even for a suspension, and she
received all the process she was due. The elaborate
termination procedure resulted in a binding conclusion by the
Hearing Committee that Martinez was willfully insubordinate.
Glasper was entitled to accept the Committee's
recommendation that Martinez not be fired and also to rely on
its finding of insubordination in suspending her. To the
extent Martinez challenged the state law procedures, the
challenge was meritless. At oral argument on the summary
judgment motions, Martinez disclaimed any cause of action
based on state law. Regardless, the District and Glasper
fully complied with those policies in her case. A
thirteen-month suspension is not a termination, especially
when the supposedly terminated employee returns to work when
the suspension ends. Martinez's claim that Glasper was
biased was not properly before the Court and was factually
unsupported. Finally, Martinez sought declaratory relief
preventing the District from continuing to impose
restrictions on Martinez's copying. Such a
declaration would have required evaluating whether Martinez
violated copyright law, an issue divorced from the rest of
the claims in Martinez's lawsuit. It would have been an
abuse of discretion and a violation of Article III to have
granted the requested declaratory judgment.
now move for attorneys' fees and costs. They request
$113, 900.00, which they say is less than half the amount
actually incurred in litigating this matter. (Doc. 113 at 2.)
This litigation was frivolous and in some respects vexatious,
harassing, and in bad faith. This misuse of the courts should
be neutralized by shifting the expense from the victim back
to the vexatious litigant. Defendants' Motion will be
granted and the fees awarded in the reasonable amount of
rights laws must strike a balance between chilling legitimate
actions on the one hand and indulging unfounded accusations
on the other. Blue v. Dep't of Army, 914 F.2d
525, 535 (4th Cir. 1990). Consequently, it is much more
difficult for prevailing defendants to recover fees in civil
rights cases than for prevailing plaintiffs. CRST Van
Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC, 136 S.Ct. 1642, 1654 (2016)
(Thomas, J., concurring) (noting the asymmetry). Defendants
may recover attorneys' fees only “upon a finding
that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable,
or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective
bad faith.” Christianburg Garment Co. v. EEOC,
434 U.S. 412, 421 (1978).
there are three bases for assessing fees against a plaintiff
in a § 1983 action: frivolity, unreasonableness, or lack
of foundation. “Without foundation” is nebulous
and begets the very post hoc fallacy the Court warned
against. See Id. at 421-22 (“[I]t is important
that a district court resist the understandable temptation to
engage in post hoc reasoning by concluding that, because a
plaintiff did not ultimately prevail, his action must have
been unreasonable or without foundation.”). But
“frivolous” and “unreasonable” are
both terms of art in the law. “Frivolous” means
“[l]acking a legal basis or legal merit; not serious;
not reasonably purposeful.” Black's Law Dictionary
692 (8th ed. 1999). “Unreasonable” means
“[n]ot guided by reason; irrational or
capricious.” Id. at 1574. “Courts should
therefore ask whether the action was irrational, capricious,
not guided by reason, not serious, or not reasonably
purposeful.” Watson v. Cty. of Yavapai, 240
F.Supp.3d 996, 1000 (D. Ariz. 2017). Of course, “if a
plaintiff is found to have brought or continued such a claim
in bad faith, there will be an even stronger basis
for charging him with the attorney's fees incurred by the
defense.” Christianburg, 434 U.S. at 422
(emphasis in original).
seek fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Section 1988(b)
provides that in § 1983 actions “the court, in its
discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable
attorney's fee.” Given the fee-shifting concerns
unique to the civil rights context, the Supreme Court has
articulated this but-for test: “Section 1988 permits
the defendant to receive only the portion of ...