Friday, November 17, 2006

Medium-Good Eleventh Circuit Title III Opinion

Yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion in Association of Disabled Americans v. Neptune Designs, Inc.. The case was a standard-issue public-accommodations accessibility case under Title III of the ADA. The parties entered into a settlement agreement, under which the district court retained jurisdiction, and the plaintiffs moved for attorneys' fees. The magistrate judge found that the plaintiffs were prevailing parties, but he recommended that their fees be reduced on the ground that they allegedly had not provided the defendants notice and an opportunity to cure prior to filing suit. The district court adopted the recommendation in a one-page order.

In its decision yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court's order. The court of appeals "stress[ed] that pre-suit notice is not required to commence suit under the ADA and that lack of pre-suit notice does not compel a reduction of the requested fee award." But the court also ruled that "where the factual record supports a finding that the plaintiff filed or maintained a suit unnecessarily, a district court may properly consider such a finding in setting the amount of attorney’s fees." The district court erred only because "the factual record is incomplete and now does not support the reduction in the fee award." In particular, the district court heard from only one side on the factual question whether the plaintiffs gave presuit notice: The magistrate judge considered an affidavit from defendants that stated that plaintiffs had not given such notice, but plaintiffs contested the point, and the magistrate judge did not permit the plaintiffs to introduce evidence to support their side of the story. The court of appeals concluded: "Receiving evidence from only one party on a disputed material fact outside the court’s expertise is inherently unfair and an abuse of discretion."

Judge Barkett concurred specially. She said:

The magistrate judge and the district court in this case lacked any factual basis for their reduction of fees to the Plaintiffs. As the majority opinion states, pre-suit notice is not required of plaintiffs asserting a cause of action under the ADA. The Defendants presented no evidence that the Plaintiffs’ suit was brought frivolously or maintained longer than was necessary. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 11, 68.

Therefore, I concur.


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