N.J. SUPERIOR COURT, APPELLATE DIVISION

Jones v. Hayman

CORRECTIONS — Attorneys' Fees

New Jersey Law Journal

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Jones v. Hayman, A-3173-09T3; Appellate Division; opinion by Fuentes, J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication February 25, 2011. Before Judges Fuentes, Ashrafi and Nugent. On appeal from the Chancery Division, Mercer County, C-123-07. [Sat below: Judge Sypek.] DDS No. 13-2-1122 [24 pp.]

Plaintiffs Kathleen Jones, Lakesha Jones, Sylvia Flynn and Helen Ewell were inmates confined in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (EMCF), an all-female penal facility. They, and other female inmates, were transferred to the previously all-male New Jersey State Prison (NJSP), allegedly to reduce the overall inmate population at EMCF and alleviate some of the strain on resources there.

After their transfer, plaintiffs filed a class-action suit against the 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 (CRA), 10:6-1 to -2.

During pretrial proceedings, plaintiffs obtained class certification and were granted a preliminary injunction restraining the DOC from continuing to transfer women inmates to NJSP. Shortly thereafter, defendants transferred all of the women back to EMCF. Certifications submitted by DOC personnel, including the commissioner, aver that the transfer back was wholly unrelated to plaintiffs' lawsuit. The trial court dismissed plaintiffs' suit as moot.

Plaintiffs sought attorneys' fees under 10:5­-27.1 and 10:6-2, claiming that they were "prevailing parties" because they (1) obtained a preliminary injunction barring defendants from continuing to transfer women to NJSP; and (2) were the catalyst for defendants' transferring plaintiffs and other class members back to EMCF.

Accepting the averments in defendants' certifications, the trial court denied plaintiffs' application, finding that they were not prevailing parties because they did not obtain a judgment on the merits, their suit did not have a basis in law, and the suit did not play a role in the decision to transfer plaintiffs back to EMCF.

On appeal, plaintiffs argue that the trial court erred in (1) its interpretation and application of the catalyst theory as adopted in Mason v. City of Hoboken , 196 N.J. 51 (2008), and D. Russo Inc. v. Township of Union , 417 N.J. Super. 384 (App. Div. 2010), and (2) holding that the preliminary injunction they obtained was insufficient to support a finding that they were the prevailing party for an award of attorneys' fees.

Held: Here, where the action was dismissed as moot without a final determination on the merits, to be considered a prevailing party under the catalyst theory of Mason and D. Russo , plaintiffs had to show that there is a factual causal nexus between the suit and the relief achieved and that the relief secured had a basis in law. The trial court erred by accepting the facts asserted in defendants' certifications regarding these issues without holding a plenary hearing.

Under the catalyst theory adopted in Mason and reaffirmed and explained in D. Russo , a plaintiff seeking an award of counsel fees as a prevailing party in an action brought under a fee-shifting statute is entitled to recover such fees if the suit "achieves the desired result because [it] brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct." A plaintiff need not obtain a final judgment on the merits or secure a consent decree to be considered a "prevailing party" under the theory, but she must show (1) a factual causal nexus between the litigation and the relief achieved; and (2) that the relief secured had a basis in law.

The panel says whether a plaintiff has established a causal nexus between the litigation and a defendant's actions is a fact-sensitive inquiry to be made on a case-by-case basis, evaluating the reasonableness of, and motivations for, an agency's decisions.

When, as here, the extent and timing of the interim relief obtained by plaintiffs strongly suggests a causal link, the burden shifts to defendants to show that the suit was not a catalyst for the actions taken. Self-serving certifications from agency officials are not by themselves sufficient to meet this burden of proof. The court's ultimate ruling must be supported by competent and credible evidence.

The panel says the trial court erred by accepting at face value the factual allegations and ultimate legal positions advanced by defendants in their certifications, without giving plaintiffs the opportunity to challenge the allegations in the certifications that the initial transfer was intended to be only a temporary solution. Whether Hayman's certification reflects the original policy of the DOC or is merely a strategic maneuver to avoid counsel fees cannot be answered through the summary process the trial court used.

As to a "basis in law," the panel says a court must consider plaintiffs' success in obtaining interim relief and in defending against defendants' efforts for summary disposition of the litigation as a matter of law. Especially relevant is the magnitude of plaintiffs' success as compared to obtaining a final judgment on the merits.

The panel says that plaintiffs' surviving defendants' threshold attempts to dismiss their case, the grant of class certification, and, most notably, obtaining preliminary injunctive relief established the legal viability of their claims. They met the "basis in law" prong under Mason .

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