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Poindexter v. Prince George's County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 19, 2018

PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, et al. Defendants.



         Pending before the Court is Defendants' motion to enforce a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 68. ECF No. 64. Plaintiff Lynwood Poindexter (“Poindexter”) also moves to enforce the Offer of Judgment, but under an interpretation that affords him leave to file separately for attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. ECF No. 65. The Court now rules because no hearing is necessary. See D. Md. Loc. R. 105.6. Upon consideration of the parties' briefing and the evidence in the record, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion and DENIES Plaintiff's motion.

         I. Background

         This lawsuit arises from Poindexter's arrest on August 15, 2014. ECF No. 1 ¶12. In his Complaint, Poindexter alleged that Prince George's County police officers approached him without probable cause and searched his car without consent. Id. ¶¶ 14-16. Despite failing to recover contraband from his person or vehicle, Poindexter was detained for the next five days, and subsequently charged with possessing controlled substances and firearms. Id. ¶¶ 22-29. The firearms charges were dropped two weeks later, and the drug charges were dropped at trial on January 29, 2015. Id. 30-33. Poindexter thereafter initiated this action, asserting state common law claims, state statutory claims, and constitutional claims brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Prince George's County and the individual police officers. Id. ¶¶ 37-78.

         Defendants (collectively, “the County”) moved for partial dismissal, or in the alternative for summary judgment, arguing that Poindexter's failure to comply with the notice provisions set forth in the Local Government Tort Claims Act, Md. Cod Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-304, barred suit. ECF No. 8. The Court granted the County's motion as to the state law claims for false arrest and illegal search, but denied the motion as to Poindexter's other claims. ECF No. 32.

         At the close of discovery, the parties engaged in settlement discussions. ECF No. 57 ¶ 1. Thereafter, on October 3, 2018, the County extended an Offer of Judgment (the “Offer”) to Poindexter which reads:

Pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, defendants hereby submit a written offer of judgment on behalf of Officer Dashaun Randall and Officer Cedric Babineaux, to allow judgment to be taken against them in the sum of Fifty Thousand dollars ($50, 000.00), inclusive of attorney's fees accrued to date, subject to the following . . . .

ECF No. 64-1 at 2.

         The Offer of Judgment further detailed particular undertakings of both sides in connection with the Offer. Id. Plaintiff particularly agreed “upon acceptance and payment” to “file an order of satisfaction, execute a release and settlement agreement, execute a dismissal with prejudice in favor of all beneficiaries of this offer of judgment, and otherwise to formalize Plaintiff's release and discharge of all claims by Plaintiff against all beneficiaries of this offer of judgment.” Id. at 2-3. Notably absent in the list of contemplated filings is a separate petition for attorneys' fees.

         On October 5, 2018, Poindexter accepted and signed the Offer. ECF No. 64-2 at 2. Two weeks later, Poindexter filed a joint post-mediation status report on behalf of both parties. ECF No. 57. The status report informed the Court of the Offer, that the Plaintiff had accepted the Offer, and that “[t]he Offer of Judgment acknowledges Plaintiff's entitlement to attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the corollary 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Accordingly, a motion requesting said fees will be filed for consideration by the Court.” ECF No. 57 ¶ 5.

         The next day, the County submitted a line “to correct paragraph 5 of the Joint Status Report . . . because Defendants' Offer of Judgment specified that the amount offered was inclusive (not exclusive) of attorneys' fees accrued up to the date the Offer was extended.” ECF No. 58. Plaintiff objected, contending that, at best, the attorneys' fees provision in the Offer was ambiguous and should be construed in Plaintiff's favor, thus allowing Plaintiff to file a separate petition for attorneys' fees. ECF No. 59. The Court then held a status conference and directed the parties to submit supplemental pleadings on the scope and enforcement of the Rule 68 Offer of Judgment. ECF Nos. 62, 63.

         II. Analysis

         The Court begins with noting that in a § 1983 action, the Court may award “a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs” to the prevailing party in the action. 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). A “prevailing party” is “one who has been awarded some relief by the court” on the underlying claims. Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Virginia Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 603 (2001). Practically, the prevailing party must submit to the Court a petition for such fees, detailing the work performed so that the Court may assess the petition for reasonableness and order fees to be paid by the non-prevailing party, if warranted. McAfee v. Boczar, 738 F.3d 81, 88 (4th Cir. 2013).

         During the litigation, but at least 14 days in advance of trial, a defendant may submit an offer of judgment pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 68(a) (“a party defending against a claim may serve on an opposing party an offer to allow judgment on specified terms, with the costs then accrued.”). If the plaintiff accepts the offer in writing within 14 days after being served, “either party may then file the offer and notice of acceptance, ” and “[t]he clerk must then enter judgment.” Id. If the plaintiff rejects the offer, however, and then obtains a judgment less favorable than the rejected offer, the plaintiff must bear the costs incurred after the offer was made. See Fed R. Civ. P. 68(d). Accordingly, “[t]he plain purpose of Rule 68 is to encourage settlement and avoid litigation.” Marek v. Chesny, 473 U.S. 1, 5 (1985) (internal ...

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