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Capps v. Drake

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 29, 2018

Isaac W. Capps, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Kevin Drake et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued April 5, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 14-cv-441 - Michael J. Reagan, Chief Judge & Nancy J. Rosenstengel, Judge.

          Before Kanne, Rovner, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Kanne, Circuit Judge

         Generally, the prevailing party in a civil rights lawsuit is entitled to an award of attorney's fees. 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). It is reasonable, however, for the court to award no fees to the prevailing party if the party received only a technical, nominal, or de minimis damage award. In this case, Isaac Capps was awarded substantial damages and thus should have been awarded attorney's fees. The judgment of the district court is reversed, and this case is remanded for a determination of the amount to be awarded.

         I. Background

         Isaac Capps sued six law enforcement officers for failure to intervene in an unlawful search and for use of excessive force, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The parties attempted to negotiate a settlement before trial. First, the defendants offered $47, 500; Capps countered with $2 million. The defendants then offered $200, 000, which Capps again rejected and demanded $3.5 million. Capps's final settlement demand was for $3.6 million, which the defendants rejected. The case went to trial by a jury.

         Capps succeeded on eight of the ten claims he brought to trial.[*] He prevailed on his failure-to-intervene claims against each defendant and on his excessive-force claims against two of the defendants. At the end of the five-day trial, the jury awarded Capps $22, 000 in compensatory damages and $10, 092 in punitive damages.

         After trial, Capps filed a petition to recover attorney's fees pursuant to § 1988(b). The judge who presided over the trial ordered the parties to appear before a magistrate judge for a settlement conference regarding the fees. The conference failed to resolve the issue. The trial judge then sua sponte "referred" the fee petition to another judge within the district, Chief Judge Reagan. (R. 223.) No party objected to the referral. At a hearing, Chief Judge Reagan explained that he was hearing the motion because he has a special interest in attorney's fees based on his work with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission as well as other experiences. Ultimately, Chief Judge Reagan denied the petition for fees, and Capps appealed.

         II. Analysis

         On appeal, Capps challenges the denial of his petition for fees on two bases. First, he contends the district court lacked the authority to refer his post-trial motion to another judge. Second, he claims the court abused its discretion when it awarded him no attorney's fees.

         A. The district court had authority to transfer the motion.

         No statute or regulation permits a district court judge to refer or transfer a contested post-trial motion to another judge. Nor does any statute or regulation expressly prohibit such referrals. But "the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not completely describe and limit the power of the federal courts." G. Heileman Brewing Co. v. Joseph Oat Corp., 871 F.2d 648, 651 (7th Cir. 1989). And "the mere absence of language in the federal rules specifically authorizing or describing a particular judicial procedure should not, and does not, give rise to a negative implication of prohibition." Id. at 652. The court has inherent power to "exercise procedural authority outside the explicit language of the rules of civil procedure," id. at 651, including the "power to control the assignment and transfer of cases," United States v. Keane, 375 F.Supp. 1201, 1204 (N.D. Ill. 1974), aff'd 522 F.2d 534 (7th Cir. 1975). See also Dietz v. Bouldin, 136 S.Ct. 1885, 1891 (2016) (quoting Link v. Wabash R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 630-31 (1962)) ("Accordingly, this Court has long recognized that a district court possesses inherent powers that are 'governed not by rule or statute but by the control necessarily vested in courts to manage their own affairs so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases.'").

         The referral of a post-trial motion falls within this inherent authority and so the referral of the motion for attorney's fees in this case was not beyond the district court's authority. Still, the district court must not abuse its discretion when exercising this authority. G. Heileman Brewing Co., 871 F.2d at 653; see Dietz, 136 S.Ct. at 1892 (internal citation omitted) (quoting De-gan v. United States, 517 U.S. 820, 823-24 (1996)) ("[T]he exercise of an inherent power must be a 'reasonable response to the problems and needs' confronting the court's fair administration of justice … and cannot be contrary to any express grant of or limitation on the district court's power contained ...

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