United States District Court, D. New Jersey
WILLIAM J. MARTINI. U.S.D.J.
Priscilla Songg ("Plaintiff) brings this civil rights
action against various municipal and individual Defendants.
The matter comes before the Court on Defendant County of
Passaic's ("Passaic" or "County")
motion for attorneys' fees and costs. ECF No. 21
("Mot."). For the reasons set forth below, the
motion is DENIED.
alleges various individual and municipal defendants
("Defendants") are liable for her wrongful arrest
and subsequent mistreatment. See generally Amend.
Compl., ECF No. 3 ("AC"). Passaic, the City of
Paterson, and its Police Department moved to dismiss. ECF
Nos. 7, 12. The Court granted-in-part and denied-in-part the
City of Paterson and its Police Department's joint
motion. MTD Op. at 3-8. Passaic's motion was granted in
its entirety. Id.
August 1, 2019, the County filed the present motion for
attorneys' fees and costs. ECF No. 21. After Plaintiffs
time to oppose the motion expired, Plaintiffs counsel
submitted a letter explaining that due to staffing changes,
Plaintiffs firm neglected to submit a timely opposition
brief. To avoid unfair prejudice, the Court granted both
parties an extension. ECF No. 24. Briefing was completed on
October 12, 2019. ECF Nos. 25 (Opposition) & 26 (Reply).
moves for attorneys' fees and costs under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1988. Section 1988 "allows the award of a
reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party in .. .
suits brought under § 1983." Fox v. Vice,
563 U.S. 826, 832-33 (2011). Typically, Section 1988 operates
to permit plaintiffs to recover fees from defendants
"whose misconduct created the need for legal
action." Id. at 833. But in Christianburg
Garment Co. v. EEOC, the Supreme Court "held that
§ 1988 also authorizes a fee award to a prevailing
defendant, but under a different standard reflecting the
'quite different equitable considerations' at
stake." Id. (quoting Christianburg Garment
Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 419 (1978)). "A
plaintiff may be liable for attorneys' fees under §
1988 when a court finds that his claim was frivolous,
unreasonable, or groundless, or that the plaintiff continued
to litigate after it clearly becomes so." Brown v.
Borough of Chambers burg, 903 F.2d 274, 277 (3d Cir.
1990) (quoting Christianburg, 434 U.S. at 422).
While subjective bad faith is not required, "[i]mplicit
in this approach is the premise that plaintiff knew or should
have known the legal or evidentiary deficiencies of his
claim." Id. (citations omitted). The movant
bears the burden of establishing its right to an award.
Fox, 563 U.S. at 838.
the Court is not convinced that Plaintiff knew or should have
known her claims against the County were deficient because
Plaintiff did not actually assert any claims against the
County. As the Court noted in the MTD Opinion, Plaintiff
failed "to allege any wrongdoing by the County or name
the County in any count." MTD Op. at 2. The AC clearly
lays out which claims are asserted against which Defendants
in bolded headers. AC pp. 4-12. The County appears in none of
them. Id. Further, the County itself is not included
as one of "the parties" in the Complaint.
Id. ¶¶ 1-7 (emphasis and capitalization
adjusted). The only mention of the County is in the
case caption and "wherefore" clauses of the AC. But
context clues demonstrate that the "County of
Passaic" was likely not meant to be a separate party.
Instead, it was likely included to specify the County in
which the City of Paterson sits. Only Passaic is separated by
a semi-colon from the City of Paterson in the case caption,
as opposed to commas separating the other distinct parties.
AC p.1. And the "wherefore" clauses always list
"The City of Paterson, County of Passaic" in that
exact form, not "The City of Paterson, The County of
Passaic." Id. pp. 4-14.
that no claims were alleged against the County, the Court
will not hold Plaintiff liable for Passaic's
attorneys' fees. As the County argues, "an award of
fees to a prevailing defendant is premised on a
finding the 'plaintiff knew or should have known the
legal or evidentiary deficiencies of his
claim.''" Mot. at 8 (quoting
Brown, 903 F.2d at 277) (emphasis added)). Because
no claim was asserted against the County, see MTD
Opp. at 1-2, the Court is not convinced that Plaintiff
"knew or should have known" that any of her
theories of liability were deficient. Brown, 903
F.2d at 277; see also AC pp. 4-12 (listing parties
each count is asserted against). Accordingly, assessing fees
against the Plaintiff would be inappropriate.
reasons set forth above, the County of Passaic's motion
for attorneys' fees, ECF No. 21, is
DENIED. An appropriate order follows.
 The Passaic County Jail is mentioned,
but the Jail and County are separate entities. See
N.J.S.A. § 30:8-17. In any event, neither the Jail, nor
any of its employees, is alleged to have committed any
wrongdoing and the Jail is not included in the header of ...