United States District Court, D. Maryland
ELLEN LIPTON HOLLANDER, District Judge.
The Court must resolve a motion for attorney's fees that arises from an extraordinarily long-running class action filed by detainees at the Baltimore City Detention Center ("BCDC"), challenging the conditions of confinement in that institution. The present civil action is a consolidation of two actions that began in 1971, see Collins v. Schoonfield, Civ. No. K-71-500 (D. Md.), and in 1976, see Duvall v. Lee, Civ. No. K-76-1255 (D. Md.). The plaintiffs in the present action are "that class of persons... who are now or who will in the future be confined to the Baltimore City Detention Center." ECF 423-2 at 4-5. The current defendants are "the persons holding the following Maryland state offices: Governor, Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Commissioner of Pretrial Detention and Services, Commissioner of Corrections, and the Warden of the Detention Center." Id. at 5.
The protracted litigation has a tortured procedural history. At several stages of the litigation, the parties entered into consent decrees, consent orders, and court-approved settlement agreements resolving various aspects of the case. These include a 1978 Consent Decree (ECF 423-1); a 1993 Consolidated Consent Decree (sometimes referred to as the "1993 Decree"), dated July 9, 1993 (ECF 423-2); a 2002 Consent Order (ECF 423-3); a 2009 Partial Settlement Agreement ("PSA, " ECF 374-1), approved by Order dated April 6, 2010 (ECF 394); and a 2012 Partial Settlement Agreement Amendment ("PSA Amendment, " ECF 447-1, approved by Order dated May 9, 2012 (ECF 465). These decrees, orders, and agreements provided for continuing monitoring by plaintiffs and the Court with respect to certain aspects of the operation of BCDC and the conditions of confinement at the facility.
The case was initially assigned to the late Judge Frank A. Kaufman. Judge J. Frederick Motz presided over the litigation from 1993 until July 2011, when the case was reassigned to me. See ECF 419.
All of the pending substantive matters have been settled by the parties. The only issue that is now the subject of contested litigation is plaintiffs' motion under Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d)(2) for an award of attorney's fees for their work "in defense of the  Consolidated Consent Decree, " spanning from December 2003 through the 2012 PSA Amendment. ECF 467-1 at 1-2. The Court granted plaintiffs' unopposed motion to bifurcate the issue of whether defendants are liable for plaintiffs' attorney's fees from the issue of the amount of an award, if any. See ECF 466, ECF 468. Now pending is plaintiffs' "Motion for Determination that Defendants are Liable for Plaintiffs' Attorneys' Fees" ("Motion") (ECF 467). The Motion has been fully briefed,  and no hearing is necessary to resolve it. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I will deny the Motion.
The factual background of this litigation was summarized as of 1993 by Judge Kaufman in the 1993 Consolidated Consent Decree. He wrote, ECF 423-2 at 1-4 (underlines in original, italics added for emphasis):
This is a consolidation of two separate class action suits initiated by inmates involving the conditions of confinement at the Baltimore City Jail, now known as the Baltimore City Detention Center. The first suit, Collins v. Schoonfield, Civil No. 71-500-K, was filed in 1971 and related to the conditions of confinement in the Jail. On May 15, 1972, the Court issued an opinion, reported at 344 F.Supp. 257 (D. Md. 1972), finding that many of the conditions shown at trial involved violations of the inmates' constitutionally protected rights. Interim Decree I was entered on July 27, 1972, setting forth specific standards of confinement with respect to various areas of Jail administration. The standards with respect to the delivery of medical services were covered in Interim Decree II entered on December 13, 1972.
The second suit, originally captioned Duvall v. Lee, Civil No. K-76-1255, was filed in 1976 and related to overcrowding and its effect on the conditions of confinement in the Jail. The Duvall case first resulted in a "Partial Agreement Among the Parties", approved by the Court on November 23, 1977, which was a short term plan for the immediate reduction of the Jail's population. Subsequently, the parties entered into Consent Agreement II, which was approved by the Court and adopted as its decree on July 13, 1978. [Consent Agreement II set forth various standards relating to inmate housing].
After the City moved for modifications, the provisions of the decrees in the two cases, with same changes, were combined into a single Consolidated Decree which was entered by the Court with the consent of the parties on April 24, 1981. In 1984, some new changes in the decree were made by consent.... Most importantly, these changes permitted limited double-celling in the Male Detention Center and set a separate capacity limit for each housing section in the Jail, including all sections not covered by the 1981 decree. In addition, a number of suits by individual inmates were consolidated with the class actions.
[Additional modifications were made over the next several years].
The parties agreed to a revised decree in 1988 which was intended as a replacement for the 1984 decree and was designed to reorganize and simplify the decree's provisions and to bring all previous decrees and agreements together into one document.
On July 1, 1991, the State, pursuant to House Bill No. 1059, 1991 Laws of Md. Ch. 59, created the Division of Pre-Trial Detention and Services and assumed the control, regulation and administration of the Baltimore City Jail under the name The Baltimore City Detention Center. The revisions set forth in this 1993 Decree incorporate the modifications requested by the State in recognition of the State's assumption from Baltimore City for the day to day operation and administration of the Baltimore City Detention Center.
The 1993 Consolidated Consent Decree lists as its purpose to "eliminate and to prevent overcrowding the Detention Center and to ensure that the inmates are not subjected to living conditions, the totality of which can reasonably be expected to violate the standards of human decency required by the Eighth Amendment or by any other provision of the Constitution of the United States." Id. at 7. Judge Kaufman also stated, id.:
[T]his Court is specifically not ruling that each of the provisions of this Decree is per se required by the Constitution of the United States. Thus, while many of the provisions of this Decree are identical with, or modify provisions included in previous decrees appropriately entered by this Court in the Collins and Duvall cases, it is noted that the Plaintiffs may not be entitled, as a matter of law, to obtain the precise relief embodied in each of the Decree's provisions.
Furthermore, it should be noted that, while the Defendants have agreed to the entry of this Decree, they do not admit to violating any constitutional or other rule, standard, or law.
Following the entry of the 1993 Decree, litigation remained relatively dormant until after the passage in 1996 of the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. The PLRA was intended to "reduce the quantity and improve the quality of prisoner suits, " Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 524 (2002), and "to oust the federal judiciary from day-to-day prison management." Inmates of Suffolk Cnty. Jail v. Rouse, 129 F.3d 649, 655 (1st Cir. 1997); see 141 Cong. Rec. S. 14316-17 (daily ed. Sept. 26, 1995) (statement of Sen. Abraham) ("No longer, then, will we have consent decrees... under which judges control the prisons literally for decades."). As to this latter goal, the PLRA includes a provision allowing a defendant to obtain relief from pre-existing consent decrees that failed to meet the new standards of the PLRA. In particular, the PLRA entitles a defendant to "the immediate termination of any prospective relief if the relief was approved or granted in the absence of a finding by the court that the relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right." 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(2).
In October 1997, in accordance with this provision, the defendants moved to terminate the 1993 Decree. ECF 56. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3626(e)(2), Judge Motz entered a stay of the 1993 Decree while the motion to terminate was pending. ECF 60. However, Judge Motz never ruled on the motion to terminate. Rather, in January 1999, after briefing by both parties, Judge Motz administratively "terminated" the motion to terminate, subject to its being reopened on request, and administratively closed the case, subject to its being reopened at the request of any party at any time. ECF 74. The stay remained in effect indefinitely.
The most recent phase of the litigation began in December 2003, when plaintiffs filed a "Motion to Restore the Medical and Physical Plant Provisions of the [1993 Consolidated] Consent Decree to the Active Docket and to Schedule Appropriate Further Proceedings" (ECF 128), along with a memorandum in support (ECF 129) (collectively, "Motion to Restore"). The Motion to Restore described "dangerous conditions" at BCDC and averred that the conditions "violate the Consent Decree previously entered in this case." ECF 129 at 1. Plaintiffs asked the Court to "reopen this matter to enforce those provisions of the decree with which Defendants are in non-compliance." Id. In particular, as the title of the Motion to Restore suggested, plaintiffs sought "to enforce the medical and physical plant provisions of the 1993 Consent Decree, including the intake provision and the provision requiring that certain health care standards be maintained in the BCDC. Plaintiffs further [sought] to enforce the provisions related to sanitation and facility maintenance." Id. at 2 (citations omitted).
Defendants opposed the Motion to Restore, arguing that the reopening of the case should be governed by the same standards as a motion to terminate under the PLRA, as the effect was the same: continuation by a federal court of prospective relief in a state prison conditions of confinement case. See ECF 135 at 1-2. And, defendants averred that the plaintiffs "do not allege, nor can they establish, that the relief sought meets this strict standard." Id. at 2. After plaintiffs filed a reply brief, ECF 142, Judge Motz advised the parties that "the issue would best be framed by the defendants filing [a] renewed motion to terminate." See ECF 148.
Soon thereafter, in April 2004, defendants filed a "Renewed Motion to Terminate [the 1993 Consolidated] Consent Decree" ("Motion to Terminate, " ECF 148). In their Motion to Terminate, defendants argued that "current conditions at BCDC are constitutional, " ECF 148 at 8, and that the 1993 Decree does not satisfy the standards established by the PLRA for the continuation of prospective relief. Id. at 20-38. The Motion to Terminate was fully briefed and was argued to Judge Motz in August 2004. On August 30, 2004, Judge Motz issued an Order (ECF 196) granting plaintiffs' Motion to Restore and holding in abeyance defendants' Motion to Terminate. Judge Motz later explained that this course of action was intended to allow plaintiffs to build an evidentiary record through discovery that would allow the Court to determine whether to terminate the 1993 Decree. See ECF 217.
A lengthy period of discovery and settlement negotiations ensued. In August 2009, the parties achieved the PSA, see ECF 374, resolving "all the areas in dispute with the exception of the method of protecting from heat injury detainees with high security or high-medium security classifications." ECF 374-1 ¶ 5. Pursuant to the class action settlement approval requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(e), the Court approved the PSA on April 6, 2010. See ECF 394. In July 2011, while the parties continued to negotiate in an attempt to resolve the remaining heat injury issue, Judge Motz disqualified himself from the case and it was reassigned to me. See ECF 419. On May 9, 2012, I approved the parties' PSA Amendment, which resolved the heat injury issue. ECF 465.
Plaintiffs now seek attorney's fees for "their activities in defense of the [1993 Decree], " including "their Motion to Reopen in December 2003 and their Opposition to Defendants' Renewed Motion for Termination in 2004, as well as their time negotiating the PSA and PSA Amendment on behalf of the class." Memo at 1-2. Claiming that they are the "prevailing parties" and are entitled to reasonable fees and costs, plaintiffs predicate their Motion on the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, and the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. According to plaintiffs, most of the remedial provisions in the PSA and PSA Amendment "have antecedents in the findings of unconstitutionality in the Collins litigation decree and in the Duvall Order." ECF 467-1 at 9. They assert that they obtained the ...