Nahmod Law

Removal, Attorney’s Fees and the Crucial Individual-Official Capacity Distinction

Some time ago I posted about the need for attorneys to understand the crucial distinction between individual and official capacity claims brought under section 1983. Here is that post:

This crucial distinction emerged in a somewhat unusual Third Circuit decision involving removal and attorney’s fees, but this time in a non-section 1983 prospective relief situation.

In League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2019 WL 1782839 (3rd Cir. 2019), one of the defendants, a senator who was the state senate pro tempore, had been sued for prospective relief in his official capacity by various plaintiffs challenging Pennsylvania’s 2011 redistricting plan under state law only. He improperly removed the plaintiffs’ state suit to federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b) without an objectively reasonable basis for doing so, because there were no federal claims. On remand, the district court ordered the senator to pay fees and costs personally pursuant to §1447(c).

On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the fees and costs award to the plaintiffs, but it reversed the aspect of the district court’s decision that made the senator personally liable. In this case of first impression on the matter, the court reasoned that the senator was a party to the prospective relief lawsuit only in his official capacity, not his individual capacity, and thus he should not be forced to pay personally. Further, the district court made no separate finding of bad faith on the part of the senator as a basis for awarding fees and costs as a sanction. In short, the district court did not have power to sanction a non-party.

The lesson here is, once again, that this distinction is ignored at the attorney’s peril, regardless of whether a lawsuit seeks damages or prospective relief.

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Written by snahmod

May 29, 2020 at 9:39 am

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