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Aguirre-Urbina v. Wilcox

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

December 2, 2019

BRYAN S. WILCOX, Seattle Field Office Deputy Director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; DEREK N. BENNER, [1] Acting Deputy Director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; JAMES McHENRY, Director, Executive Office for Immigration Review; CHAD F. WOLF, [2] Acting Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security; WILLIAM P. BARR, [3] Attorney General of the United States; and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondents.


          Thomas S. Zilly, United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on petitioner Fernando Francisco Aguirre-Urbina's motion for attorney's fees and costs, docket no. 20. Having reviewed all papers filed in support of, and in opposition to, the motion, the Court enters the following order.


         Petitioner brings the pending motion for attorney's fees and expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), which provides in relevant part:

Except as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses . . . incurred by that party in any civil action . . ., including proceedings for judicial review of agency action, brought . . . against the United States in any court having jurisdiction of that action, unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.

28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). Petitioner seeks a total of $18, 159.45, which reflects (i) 88.5 hours of attorney time at the rate of $201.60 per hour for work performed in 2018 and the rate of $204.25 per hour for services provided in 2019, and (ii) expenses in the amount of $151.96. Respondents do not challenge the number of hours expended by petitioner's counsel or the hourly rates recited in the motion, which are consistent with the cost-of-living adjustments permitted under EAJA. See 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A); Thangaraja v. Gonzales, 428 F.3d 870, 876-77 (9th Cir. 2005). Rather, respondents oppose the motion for EAJA fees and expenses on grounds that petitioner is not a “prevailing party” within the meaning of § 2412(d)(1)(A) and that their position was “substantially justified.” Respondents' arguments lack merit.

         A. “Prevailing Party”

         EAJA articulates an exception to the “American rule” that private litigants must pay their own attorneys' fees. See Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Ctr. v. U.S. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 589 F.3d 1027, 1030 (9th Cir. 2009). EAJA is just one of many fee-shifting statutes, and the term “prevailing party, ” which is used in virtually all such legislation, is interpreted consistently to mean an entity that has achieved a “judicially sanctioned” “material alteration” in the legal relationship of the parties. Id. A “moral victory” or a mere determination of probable legal merit, which might have “put the handwriting on the wall, ” is insufficient. Id. at 1030-31. To be “prevailing, ” the party must obtain actual, legal or equitable, relief, by virtue of a requirement of the court, and not through a voluntary change in the other side's conduct. Id. at 1031; see Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W.Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598 (2001) (rejecting the “catalyst theory” pursuant to which a plaintiff was considered a “prevailing party” if the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's behavior).

         Respondents do not dispute that, by pursuing a writ of habeas corpus, petitioner achieved a “material alteration” in the legal relationship of the parties. When petitioner initiated this action, he had been in federal custody since September 6, 2012, awaiting final decisions in his removal proceedings and concerning his applications for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture. See Order at 1 (docket no. 13). On May 28, 2019, Immigration Judge Tammy L. Fitting conducted a bond hearing and set bond in the amount of $30, 000. See Tr. at Track 01 (00:00:01) & Track 03 (00:03:28) (May 28, 2019) (docket no. 22-1); see also Custody Order of Immigration Judge, Ex. 1 to Supp. Resp. (docket no. 16-1). Petitioner was released after posting bond, and this action was dismissed without prejudice as moot. See Order (docket no. 19). In other words, petitioner achieved the result sought in this litigation, namely an end to his immigration detention, which exceeded 6½ years. See Klamath, 589 F.3d at 1030 (the “material alteration” must be “relief that the would-be prevailing party sought”); see also Ali v. Gonzales, 486 F.Supp.2d 1197, 1203 (W.D. Wash. 2007) (“The fact that Petitioners remain out of custody at the present moment is further evidence of their materially altered relationship with the Government.”).

         Respondents contend, however, that the remedy obtained by petitioner was the consequence of a voluntary capitulation, and he is therefore not a “prevailing party.” The record does not support this assertion. On May 17, 2019, the Court directed respondents to show cause why the Court should not grant the habeas petition in part and direct that petitioner be released on appropriate conditions unless, at a new bonding hearing, petitioner's “current danger to the community” was established by clear and convincing evidence.[4] Order at 5 (docket no. 13) (emphasis in original). A copy of the Court's show cause order was provided to Immigration Judge Fitting. See Tr. at Track 01 (00:00:47-00:01:11) (May 28, 2019) (docket no. 22-1).

         On May 28, 2019, prior to the deadline for a response to the show cause order, an attorney for the Government, Anthony Capese, told Immigration Judge Fitting that the bond hearing had been “ordered by the District Court.” Id. at Track 01 (00:00:47). Capese also informed Immigration Judge Fitting that the show cause order “specifically calls for the government to present clear and convincing evidence that petitioner presents a current danger to the community.” Id. at Track 01 (00:01:02). In setting bond, Immigration Judge Fitting indicated that she had “been ordered by the higher court to issue a bond in this case.” Id. at Track 03 (00:03:28). Although the Court's show cause order did not in fact require a bond hearing or direct that petitioner be released on bond, both the lawyer representing the Government and Immigration Judge Fitting believed otherwise, and their actions of facilitating or conducting a bond hearing and setting bond, respectively, cannot be viewed as “voluntary.” See Webster's Third New Int'l Dictionary 2564 (1981) (defining voluntary as “produced in or by an act of choice” or “performed, made, or given of one's own free will”).

         EAJA's purpose is to “discourage the federal government from using its superior resources unreasonably.” Kholyavskiy v. Schlecht, 479 F.Supp.2d 897, 903 (E.D. Wis. 2007). It is essentially an “anti-bully” law. Id. If the Court were to adopt respondents' view that petitioner is not a “prevailing party” when, after six years of confinement, he initiated this lawsuit, was forced to respond to a motion to dismiss and to file objections to a magistrate judge's unfavorable report and recommendation, and had to present oral argument at a bond hearing before receiving the opportunity to post a $30, 000 bond to secure his release, EAJA would be used to facilitate, rather than deter, governmental bullying. See id. at 905-06 (recognizing that, if “prevailing party” is too narrowly construed, the government could “litigate vigorously to wear down the plaintiff and then ‘tactically moot' the case prior to judicial action”).

         Indeed, after the Court issued its show cause order, respondents persisted in their view that the Court lacked authority to grant habeas relief and that they bore no burden to justify petitioner's continued detection with clear and convincing evidence of petitioner's danger to the community. See Resp. to Show Cause (docket no. 14). Respondents never relented, and petitioner's release on bond was not prompted by any voluntary concession on respondents' part, but rather was the product of petitioner's attorneys' tireless work on his behalf, as well as the Court's strong message that his request for habeas relief had merit. See Kholyavskiy, 479 F.Supp.2d at 900 & 909 (awarding EAJA fees when a petitioner was released after the district court directed merely that a final decision about his detention be made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement within 48 hours); see also Int'l Refugee Assistance Project v. Kelly, 2017 WL 3263870 at *4 (C.D. Cal. July 27, 2017) (observing in connection with the grant of EAJA fees and costs that, with regard to Respondents' eventual exercise of discretion to release the Does from detention on parole and later to admit them into the United States, “[t]here is no evidence that Respondents would have done the same or in as timely a manner if the Court had not issued its Orders, ” which offered certain procedural safeguards, but did not grant the requested habeas relief).

         B. Not ...

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