Troopers Lose Post-Janus Attorney Fee Case

Written on 08/06/2022
Will Aitchison

A group of current and former Connecticut state troopers filed suit in 2015 against the Connecticut State Police Union and various state officials alleging that the Union violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by deducting union fees from their pay even after they withdrew from union membership. While the lawsuit was pending, the Supreme Court decided Janus v. AFSCME, 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018), in which the Court – overturn­ing 40 years of precedent – held that the First Amendment prohibited public employers from withholding union fees from nonmembers.

Following the Janus ruling, the Union stopped collecting agency fees and refunded the fees it had collected pre-Janus, plus interest, to the Troopers.

In light of Janus and the Union’s subsequent actions, the federal trial court dismissed the Troopers’ complaint as moot. It also denied the Troopers’ request for attorneys’ fees, concluding that the Troopers were not “prevailing parties” under the statute.

The Troopers appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Addressing the “mootness” question first, the Court found that “the standard for determining whether a defendant’s voluntary conduct moots a case is stringent: A case might become moot if subsequent events made it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.

“Here, Defendants have satisfied their ‘formidable burden’ of showing that the collection of unlawful agency fees ‘could not reasonably be expected to recur.’ Prior to the Janus ruling, Defendants’ collection of agency fees from nonmembers was permitted under longstanding Supreme Court prece­dent. But in Janus, the Supreme Court unequivocally declared that states and public-sector unions ‘may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees.’

“Following that decision, Defen­dants immediately announced that they would stop collecting agency fees and then fully refunded the Troopers’ pre-Janus fees with interest. They have not tried to collect agency fees in the several years since Janus was decided, and there is no indication they ever will.”

Turning to the Troopers’ request for attorney fees, the Court noted that “under Section 1988 of the Civil Rights Act, plaintiffs are ‘prevailing parties,’ and thus eligible for attorneys’ fees, only if: (1) they achieve some material alter­ation of the legal relationship between them and their adversaries; and (2) that change bears a judicial imprimatur. It is undisputed that, over the course of the litigation, the Troopers never obtained a judgment on the merits, interim relief, or a final settlement agreement.

“The Troopers nonetheless argue that they are prevailing parties because Defendants’ decision to refund the pre-Janus fees was not – as the district court found – a ‘unilateral’ decision, but instead was the result of the parties’ settlement negotiations. The Troopers point primarily to evidence that the Union’s calculations of the refunds paid to the Troopers included interest at the rate proposed by the Troopers at the settlement conference. But even if this evidence showed that Defendants’ decision to refund the pre-Janus fees was due to a negotiated agreement between the parties, the Troopers have still failed to show that the agreement bears sufficient ‘judicial imprimatur’ to confer prevailing party status. Private settlement agreements ‘do not entail the judicial approval and oversight involved in consent decrees.’

“The Troopers also argue that they are entitled to attorneys’ fees because the district court participated in the parties’ settlement negotiations and told the parties it would adjudicate the issue of attorneys’ fees if they failed to reach an agreement. The district court’s participa­tion in settlement negotiations, however, is not enough to obtain prevailing party status, particularly where, as here, there is no indication that the court reviewed the terms of the agreement or incorporated the terms into an order of the court.”

Lamberty v. Connecticut State Po­lice Union, 2022 WL 319841 (2d Cir. 2022).

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