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Martinez v. Maricopa County Community College District

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 8, 2018

Cleopatria Martinez, Plaintiff,
v.
Maricopa County Community College District, a political subdivision of the state, and Rufus Glasper and Debra Glasper, husband and wife, Defendants.

          ORDER

          Neil V. Wake, Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Martinez 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 without approval.

         The 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.

         The 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.

         Chancellor 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.

         Martinez 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.

         The 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.[1] 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.

         Defendants 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 $113, 900.00.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Civil 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).

         Thus, 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).

         Defendants 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 ...


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