On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Mercer County, Docket No. C-123-07.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued October 27, 2010 - Decided
Before Judges Fuentes, Ashrafi and Nugent.
The opinion of the court was delivered by
This appeal requires us to consider under what circumstances a plaintiff, who brings an action pursuant to statutes containing fee-shifting provisions, may be deemed a prevailing party under the catalyst theory when the underlying action is dismissed as moot without a final judicial determination on the merits of the case.
Plaintiffs Kathleen Jones, Lakesha Jones, Sylvia Flynn, and Helen Ewell were four inmates initially confined in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (EMCF), an all-female penal facility. Following their transfer, along with several other women prisoners, to the previously all-male New Jersey State Prison (NJSP), plaintiffs brought a class action suit against the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) alleging discriminatory and unconstitutional conditions of confinement in violation of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution; the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42; and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2.
In the course of pre-trial proceedings, plaintiffs successfully obtained certification to proceed as a class and were granted a preliminary injunction restraining the DOC from continuing to transfer women inmates to NJSP. Shortly after the court granted the preliminary injunction, defendants transferred all of the women inmates (including plaintiffs) who were held in NJSP back to the female facility. The trial court thereafter dismissed plaintiffs' underlying action as moot.
Plaintiffs then sought attorneys' fees under N.J.S.A. 10:5-27.1 and N.J.S.A. 10:6-2, claiming that they were "prevailing parties" in the litigation because they (1) successfully obtained a preliminary injunction barring defendants from continuing to transfer women inmates into NJSP; and (2) were the catalyst for defendants' actions in transferring plaintiffs and other members of the class back to the female penal facility.
The trial court denied plaintiffs' application for counsel fees, finding that they were not a "prevailing party" because plaintiffs did not obtain a judgment on the merits, their suit did not have a basis in law, and the legal action "did not play a role" in the DOC's decision to transfer plaintiffs from NJSP back to the female facility.
We now reverse and remand for the trial court to apply the standards articulated by our Supreme Court in Mason v. City of Hoboken, 196 N.J. 51, 70-79 (2008), and more recently reaffirmed and explained in our opinion in D. Russo, Inc. v. Township of Union, 417 N.J. Super. 384 (App. Div. 2010). The following facts will inform our analysis of these issues.
Commencing in March 2007, the DOC transferred approximately forty female prisoners from EMCF, New Jersey's sole women's prison, to NJSP, a maximum-security men's prison. Prior to this transfer, all of the female prisoners had been housed exclusively at EMCF. According to DOC representatives, the transfer was made in order to reduce the overall inmate population at EMCF and to alleviate some of the strain on resources at that facility.
Plaintiffs filed this suit in the Chancery Division on December 12, 2007, alleging illegal confinement; discriminatory, cruel, and unusual conditions of confinement; and violations of the right to privacy in connection with the transfer and confinement of the women prisoners in the male penal institution. Plaintiffs sought class action status for a certified class consisting of "all general population women prisoners who are now or in the future will be confined in New Jersey State Prison." The complaint sought declaratory and injunctive relief, an award of costs, and the award of reasonable attorneys' fees.
The complaint recited numerous incidents of alleged mistreatment and unwarranted infringement of the female prisoners' right to privacy both in the manner the transfer was carried out and in the conditions the women were forced to endure while at NJSP. With respect to the transfer, plaintiffs alleged that the women held at EMCF were taken from their cells by "guards in full riot gear carrying batons, mace, and other weapons." Thereafter, each woman was taken to a separate room and compelled to strip naked "while guards, including male guards, observed her and filmed her with a video camera."
According to the complaint:
Because many of the women held at EMCF have experienced sexual and physical abuse by men prior to and in some cases during their incarceration they were extremely frightened by the procedures employed during the transfer and by the prospect of transfer to a men's prison. Nursing and psychiatric staff had to be called to attend to the panic-stricken women, and many women were medicated or received increased dosages of medication.
Plaintiffs alleged equally harrowing experiences caused by the disparate conditions of confinement between the women at NJSP and the general population male inmates. The complaint alleged the imposition of restrictions on "medical care; legal access; educational and other rehabilitative services; . . . work opportunities; and exercise facilities" for the female prisoners.
According to plaintiffs, female prisoners seeking mental health care at NJSP were subjected to "dangerous and degrading conditions" in the psychiatric unit, and female prisoners in general were denied the "ability to maintain basic cleanliness with respect to their bodies, clothing, and environment." In addition, the complaint asserted that female prisoners were subject to "routine exposure . . . to observation by male guards and civilian staff in non-emergency situations while carrying out basic bodily functions and while in states of nudity."
On January 10, 2008, plaintiffs moved for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction prohibiting any further transfer of female prisoners to NJSP. According to plaintiffs, they took this step after being informed by prison staff that future transfers of female prisoners to NJSP were imminent. Shortly thereafter, the parties entered into a consent order that, with a limited exception for female inmates transferred to the administrative segregation ...