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Price v. Berman's Automotive, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 13, 2016

ANTHONY PRICE, et al., Plaintiffs


          J. Mark Coulson United States Magistrate Judge

         This case has been referred to me for all proceedings by the consent of the parties and pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 301. (ECF Nos. 18, 20, 22.) Presently pending before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs. (ECF No. 70.) The matter has been fully briefed (ECF Nos. 69-74), and no hearing is necessary, Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2014). For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiffs' motion is DENIED.

         I. Background

         This matter was originally filed on March 12, 2014 and stems from the Plaintiffs' purchase of an automobile from Defendant on February 25, 2014. The original Complaint included claims for violations of the Truth in Lending Act, 15 U.S.C. §1601-1667f (“TILA”), the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, Md. Code Ann., Com. Law §§ 13-101-13-501, and the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”) § 2-608. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) Jurisdiction in this Court was premised on 15 U.S.C. § 1640 and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367.

         The Complaint was amended on May 7, 2014 to add counts for common law deceit by non-disclosure or concealment and negligent misrepresentation, a violation of Code of Maryland Regulations (“COMAR”) §, and a violation of Maryland Code Annotated, Commercial Law § 12-694. The UCC count was dropped. (Am. Compl., ECF No. 6.)

         By order dated November 4, 2014, Chief Judge Blake of this Court granted, in part, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss. As a result of that order, the remaining counts consisted of: a violation of TILA's “timing” requirement regarding disclosures, [1] the common law deceit claim, better treated as a claim for fraud, the negligent misrepresentation claim, and part of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act claim.[2] (Mem., Nov. 4, 2014, ECF No. 10.)

         The parties consented to proceed before a United States Magistrate Judge on December 16 and 17, 2014. (ECF Nos. 20, 22.) Defendant moved for summary judgment on the remainder of the Amended Complaint on July 17, 2015. (ECF. No. 27.) This Court granted Defendant's motion in part on September 28, 2015. (ECF No. 33.) As a result of that order, Plaintiffs' claims were further narrowed. Plaintiffs' TILA claim was limited to their actual damages (the failure of Defendant to return their $1200 deposit), and their fraud/deceit, negligent misrepresentation, and Maryland Consumer Protect Act claims remained.

         On or about October 21, 2015, Defendant apparently tendered the $1200.00 plus interest to Plaintiffs and, on February 2, 2016, Defendant moved to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction. (ECF No. 40.) By order dated March 21, 2016, this Court denied Defendant's motion without prejudice, instructing Defendant that if it submitted proof of delivery of a cashier's check in the amount of $1200.00 plus interest, the TILA claim, the negligent misrepresentation claim, and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act claim would be dismissed for mootness. (ECF No. 45.) The Court further indicated that it would retain jurisdiction over the remaining fraud claim to the extent it alleged punitive damages, under its supplemental jurisdiction.

         On May 4, 2016, Defendant filed another motion to dismiss for mootness, having followed the Court's instructions set forth in its March 21, 2016 order. (ECF No. 49.) By order dated May 27, 2016, this Court dismissed as moot all remaining claims except Plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages under their common law fraud theory.[3] A trial on that remaining theory was held on June 13, 2016, at the conclusion of which this Court found that there was no liability for punitive damages for fraud and, consequently, entered judgment on behalf of Defendant.

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiffs now seek costs associated with this litigation. Specifically, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs, claiming that they brought a successful TILA action and, therefore, were eligible for reasonable attorneys' fees and costs. For the reasons that follow, this Court disagrees.

         Under the “American rule, ” which is ordinarily applicable in our legal system, “there is a general practice of not awarding fees to a prevailing party absent explicit statutory authority.” Smyth ex rel. Smyth v. Rivero, 282 F.3d 268, 274 (4th Cir. 2002) (internal citations omitted). Here, Plaintiffs seek an award of attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to, what they believe, was a successful claim brought under the TILA.

         “The TILA requires that a defendant pay costs and reasonable attorneys' fees to any person who brings a ‘successful action' to enforce liability under the TILA against that defendant.” Nigh v. Koons Buick Pontiac GMC, Inc., 478 F.3d 183, 185 (4th Cir. 2007) (citing 15 U.S.C. § 1640(a)(3) (2000)).[4] The Fourth Circuit has construed this “successful action” requirement as being largely synonymous with the “prevailing party” standard commonly seen in other federal statutes with fee shifting provisions. Nigh, 478 F.3d at 186 (“But there is little reason to suppose that a successful action is anything more or less than an action brought by a prevailing party.”). Consequently, for purposes of evaluating whether Plaintiffs brought a ‘successful action' under TILA, this Court looks to the well-defined ‘prevailing party' standard.

         In evaluating whether Plaintiffs are a “prevailing party, ” and thus eligible for costs and reasonable attorneys' fees under TILA, we are guided by the United States Supreme Court's decision in Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Virginia Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598 (2001). In Buckhannon, the Supreme Court considered the question of whether the term “prevailing party, ” as it is used in a variety of federal fee-shifting statutes, “includes a party that has failed to secure a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree, but has nonetheless achieved the desired result because the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct.” Grissom v. The Mills Corp., 549 F.3d 313, 318 (4th Cir. 2008) (citing Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 600). The Supreme Court held that it did not, stating that in order to be “considered a ‘prevailing ...

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