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Sinapi v. Rhode Island Board of Examiners

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

July 26, 2016

ANTHONY E. SINAPI, Plaintiff,
v.
RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF BAR EXAMINERS, et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          John J. McConnell, Jr. United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Anthony E. Sinapi obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) that compelled defendants, the Rhode Island Board of Bar Examiners and its members (the Board), to grant him testing accommodations for the July 2015 Rhode Island bar examination, in compliance with regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ECF No. 6. Mr. Sinapi now moves for attorney's fees as a "prevailing party" under that Act's fee-shifting provision, 42 U.S.C. § 12205, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d), and D.R.I. Local Rule 54.1. ECF No. 44. The Court finds that Mr. Sinapi is a prevailing party based on the TRO, and awards $19, 486 in fees and $400 in costs. ECF No. 6.

         I. FACTS

         Mr. Sinapi applied to take the July 2015 bar examinations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Mr. Sinapi applied for disability-related testing accommodations in both states in the form of 50% extra time, a distraction reduced environment, and permission to take prescribed medication during the exam. Massachusetts initially denied Mr. Sinapi's request, but reconsidered upon receipt of additional documents. Rhode Island also denied his initial request. Mr. Sinapi then requested reconsideration from Rhode Island's Board, offering to provide the same documents that appeared to convince Massachusetts of the merits of his accommodations bid. The Board declined, even when Mr. Sinapi reduced the additional time request to 25% extra time. Mr. Sinapi then pursued the remedy-prescribed by the Board by filing an Emergency Petition for Review with the Rhode Island Supreme Court, where he was again denied relief.

         Determining that he had no other options in light of the looming examination date, Mr. Sinapi filed an action with this Court for injunctive relief and damages against the Board, pursuant to the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the Rhode Island Constitution. ECF No. 1. In his action, he sought a TRO compelling the Board to allow him to sit for the July 2015 bar examination in Rhode Island with 25% additional time and other accommodations. ECF No. 2. The Board objected on grounds that this Court lacked jurisdiction and that the Board was entitled to absolute immunity from all claims. ECF No. 3. After a hearing, this Court granted the TRO on the ground that the Board's failure to give weight to the Massachusetts Board's decision to give Mr. Sinapi an accommodation likely violated ADA regulations. ECF No. 6. Mr. Sinapi took his exams under the terms he sought in his motion. He passed Massachusetts, but failed the Rhode Island test.[1]

         In August, the Board appealed this Court's decision to grant the TRO to the First Circuit, seeking to establish that Mr. Sinapi had taken the July 2015 bar exam under disqualifying conditions because this Court lacked jurisdiction to grant the order. See Sinapi v. R.I. Bd. of Bar Exam'rs, et al, No. 15-1980 (1st Cir. Oct. 13, 2015). The First Circuit dismissed the Board's appeal as moot because the order had been "irrevocably executed" after Mr. Sinapi took the exam.[2] See id.

         Having already been granted the injunctive relief he initially sought, Mr. Sinapi then amended his complaint, adding a claim for violations of the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act. ECF No. 20. The Board moved to dismiss the complaint. ECF No. 35. Believing there was an absence of case or controversy because Mr. Sinapi received the test accommodations, this Court issued a show cause order as to why the case should not be dismissed. This Court later dismissed all of Mr. Sinapi's outstanding claims on grounds that it lacked jurisdiction to hear his claims for money damages against the Board and its members under the Eleventh Amendment, and that his claims against members individually were precluded by quasi-judicial immunity. ECF No. 43; Sinapi v. R.I. Bd. of B. Exam'rs, No. CV 15-311-M, 2016 WL 1562909 (D.R.I. Apr. 15, 2016). Mr. Sinapi now moves for attorney's fees. ECF No. 44. The Board opposes the award on grounds that Mr. Sinapi is not a prevailing party under the relevant statute, and that, even if he were otherwise entitled to fees, the Board has quasi-judicial immunity from any such award. ECF No. 45. In the alternative, the Board opposes the size of the award proposed by Mr. Sinapi as unreasonably excessive in terms of time spent and rates charged by counsel. Id.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Under the ADA's fee-shifting provision, "the court or agency, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs." 42 U.S.C. § 12205. The Court is presented with the threshold issue of whether Mr. Sinapi is a "prevailing party" based on the TRO and, if so, the Court is presented with the second issue of what fee award is reasonable. The Court must initially consider whether an award is foreclosed by immunity.

         A. IMMUNITY

         The Board claims quasi-judicial immunity from attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which governs fee-shifting under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. ECF No. 45 at 32. The argument is unavailing because the instant motion is governed by the ADA's fee-shifting provision, 42 U.S.C. § 12205 - an entirely different statute.

         The Board is correct that before 1996, the two fee-shifting statutes were functionally identical. In Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522, 541-42 (1984), the Supreme Court held that judicial immunity was not a bar to prospective injunctive relief against a judicial officer under section 1983 or to an award of attorney's fees under section 1988. Id. at 541-42, 44. The ADA's fee-shifting provision contained substantially similar language to section 1988, so that decision was also persuasive in interpreting the ADA. Compare 42 U.S.C. § 12205 ("[T]he court or its agency, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs . . .") with 42. U.S.C. § 1988 ("the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs . . ."); see also Hutchinson ex rel. Julien v. Patrick, 636 F.3d 1, 13 (1st Cir. 2011) (noting that case law under section 1988 is helpful to interpret section 12205).

         In 1996, Congress amended section 1988 to include a judicial immunity clause, and it amended section 1983 to bar injunctive relief with respect to judicial officers. Pub.L. 104-317, Title III, § 309(a)-(b). However, Congress never amended the ADA to include similar protections for judicial officers. See Hiramanek v. Clark, No. C-13-0228 EMC, 2014 WL 107634, at *6 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 10, 2014) ("In contrast to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, there is no provision in the ADA that bars injunctive relief with respect to judicial officers."); see also Prakel v. Indiana, 100 F.Supp.3d 661, 677-78 (S.D. Ind. 2015) (suggesting that attorney's fees are permitted for ADA claims against judicial officers sued in their official capacities); Mag. J.'s Order on Tel. Status Conf., 100 F.Supp.3d 661. Accordingly, the absence of a judicial immunity clause in section 12205 of the ADA is fatal to the Board's claim of quasi-judicial immunity from an award of attorney's fees.

         B. PREVAILING PARTY STATUS

         Fee-shifting provisions in federal civil rights statutes represent Congress' considered departure from the traditional rule that attorneys pay their own way in American courts, regardless of the outcome. See Hensley v. Eckerhart,461 U.S. 424, 429 (1983); Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y421 U.S. 240, 247 (1975). Congress enacted these provisions "to ensure 'effective access to the judicial process' for persons with civil rights grievances." See Hensley,461 U.S. 424 at 429 (quoting H.R.Rep. No. 94-1558, p. 1 (1976)). Accordingly, the Court must be mindful of a civil rights statute's purpose when it determines whether a party has achieved "prevailing party" status under ...


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