Labor & Employment Law Daily County can’t avoid attorneys’ fees to blind employee who won equitable relief in disability claim, after which county accommodated her
Tuesday, March 2, 2021

County can’t avoid attorneys’ fees to blind employee who won equitable relief in disability claim, after which county accommodated her

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

After she won before a jury, but before the court granted her request for equitable relief, the county provided the accommodation.

Vacating a federal district court decision, the Fourth Circuit ruled that a blind county worker was entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees, expenses, and costs stemming from her Rehab Act lawsuit. The suit was based on the employer’s decision not to transfer the employee, a customer service rep, to a new call center because the software used at the center was not accessible. After a jury found for her, the county accommodated her and then argued, after equitable relief was no longer necessary, that she was not a “prevailing party.” The case was remanded (Reyazuddin v. Montgomery County, Maryland, February 24, 2021, Diaz, A.).

Jury verdict for employee. In 2009, when the employee was working as a customer service representative in the Montgomery County health and human services department, the county consolidated all of its customer services into a single call center. When the new center opened, the county transferred the employee’s colleagues but not her because the software used at the new center was not accessible to people who are blind. It offered her alternate jobs, but she wanted to resume her previous customer service position.

She sued under the Rehab Act and ADA, alleging that the county failed to provide her a reasonable accommodation. She sought declaratory and injunctive relief, along with compensatory damages. The district court granted summary judgment to the county, which was reversed with regards to the Rehab Act claim. That claim was set for trial and the jury found for the employee, but it awarded her $0 in compensatory damages.

Transferred but court denied her fees. After trial, the employee moved for injunctive relief requiring the county to make the new call center accessible and to transfer her there. The court ordered discovery on her equitable claims after denying her request for a preliminary injunction. While that discovery was ongoing, the county finally transferred her to the new call center. Thereafter, following an evidentiary hearing, the district court found the county had reasonably accommodated her and its previous discrimination was unlikely to recur, and denied the employee’s request for injunctive relief. It also declined to issue a declaratory judgment and entered judgment of $0 in compensatory damages. That judgment was affirmed by the court of appeals. Next, the employee moved for an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses. The district court concluded that the employee was not a “prevailing party” and denied her motion. She appealed again.

Did she prevail? On appeal, the lone issue was whether, under the Rehab Act, the employee was a “prevailing party,” which the appeals court described as a “legal term of art.” She won a jury verdict that found the county liable for discrimination and entitled her to equitable relief. That changed once the county “capitulated” and transferred her. The district court concluded that the employee did not obtain an “enforceable judgment” materially changing the legal relationship between her and the county and, therefore, that she was not a prevailing party. By arguing otherwise, the lower court reasoned that the employee was advancing the “catalyst theory” already rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home v. W. Va. Dep’t of Health & Human Res., a 2001 decision.

Other decisions. However, the appeals court did not agree with this characterization of her argument or the comparison of her claim to that made in Buckhannon and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In Farrar v. Hobby, the plaintiff had received a nominal damages award and was deemed a prevailing party. In Hewitt v. Helms, a party litigated to judgment, lost on all claims, and was deemed not to be a prevailing party. Finally, in Buckhannon, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff who achieved the desired change in the defendant’s conduct, but failed to secure judgment on the merits or obtain a court-ordered consent decree, was not a prevailing party.

Yes, she prevailed. This case, the court explained, was more like that presented in an Eighth Circuit decision, Parham v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., but in this case the employee was “even more of a ‘prevailing party’” than that employee had been. In that case, the plaintiff prevailed at trial but the appeals court had determined, as a matter of law, that the employer had discriminated. However, because the employer had already made changes, the appeals court had affirmed the district court’s denial of injunctive relief. Nevertheless, it found the plaintiff was entitled to attorneys’ fees. The U.S. Supreme Court in Buckhannon expressly approved that decision, even though it had used the otherwise rejected “catalyst” language, because there had been a finding that the employer acted unlawfully.

Sequence was key. With that reasoning to support its holding, the court explained that the employee in this case was a prevailing party because she proved her claim to the jury before the employer capitulated and transferred her. It was not because she catalyzed the county to change its behavior by filing suit. That transfer was key to the lower court’s finding that the county had reasonably accommodated her and, therefore, for its denial of her request for equitable relief. Had the county transferred her before she proved that it had discriminated, the court explained, then “this would be a classic catalyst theory case.”

And had she sought only damages, then her failure to obtain any would mean she had not prevailed. However, it would be “unjust” to determine that she did not prevail simply because of the county’s “timely capitulation” that had made equitable relief, to which she would have been entitled, unnecessary.

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