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Fourth Circuit Revives Fee Request in Disability Action

February 24, 2021 | Posted in : Expenses / Costs, Fee Award, Fee Denial, Fee Entitlement / Recoverability, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Request, Practice Area: Civil Rights / Public Interest, Prevailing Party Issues, Trial / Jury / Verdict

A recent Law 360 story by Alexis Shanes, “4th Circ. Revives Blind Worker’s Fee Bid in Disability Suit,” reports that the Fourth Circuit said a blind customer service representative can seek attorneys' fees for a disability suit she brought against the Maryland county she worked for, overturning a trial court's ruling that she couldn't claim fees even though a jury said she'd endured discrimination.  A three-judge panel weighed in on Yasmin Reyazuddin's case for a third time, striking down a Maryland federal judge's September 2019 order that denied Reyazuddin attorneys' fees, costs and expenses in her suit against Montgomery County.

Reyazuddin had sought an injunction requiring the county to reinstate her to her job at a call center, a position she lost after new call center software didn't support the screen reader software she needed to work.  In February 2016, a jury found the county had failed to accommodate Reyazuddin but awarded her nothing in damages.  The county ultimately gave in on its own following the trail, but the win still counted for Reyazuddin's fee bid, the panel said.

"Here Reyazuddin won a jury verdict that found the county liable for discrimination and entitled Reyazuddin to equitable relief — at least until the county capitulated by transferring her," Judge Albert Diaz wrote in an opinion for the panel.  "The district court nonetheless concluded that Reyazuddin isn't a prevailing party because she didn't obtain an 'enforceable judgment' that materially altered the legal relationship between herself and the county.  We disagree."

Reyazuddin had worked for Montgomery County for 10 years when she filed her April 2011 complaint.  She was offered and worked other county jobs after the call center stopped supporting screen reader software, according to the complaint.  However, Reyazuddin wanted her original position back.  So she sued, alleging the county had failed to accommodate her under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The district court granted the county summary judgment in March 2014.  The Fourth Circuit in June 2015 affirmed that ruling with respect to Reyazuddin's ADA claim but remanded her Rehabilitation Act claim for trial, according to court filings.

A few months prior to the trial, Reyazuddin was offered a job at the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit that serves blind and visually impaired individuals, which she declined, according to the opinion.  But the jury, which didn't know about the Columbia job offer, found the county discriminated against Reyazuddin after a 12-day trial in February 2016, according to the opinion.

However, the district court said it needed more information about what it would take for the county to make the call center accessible and whether the county had fulfilled its obligation to give Reyazuddin a reasonable accommodation through the turned-down Columbia job, the panel said.

Amid the ensuing discovery, though, the county finally transferred Reyazuddin to the call center position she'd sought all along, according to court filings.  In a two-week evidentiary hearing in April 2017, the district court decided the alleged discrimination constituted an isolated incident and found Reyazuddin had been accommodated, according to the opinion.  It declined to issue injunctive relief — after all, Reyazuddin had already been transferred to the call center — and denied her compensatory damages.  In November 2018, the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Reyazuddin then asked for attorneys' fees, but the district court denied her request, saying she wasn't a "prevailing party" under the Rehabilitation Act.  But the Fourth Circuit this week disagreed, saying Reyazuddin had prevailed because she proved her Rehabilitation Act claim to the jury before the county transferred her to the call center.  Had Reyazuddin sought only damages instead of injunctive relief or had the county transferred her prior to the jury trial, the situation would have been different, the panel added.  "We note that our holding today is narrow," Judge Diaz wrote.  "But it would be unjust to hold that Reyazuddin didn't prevail simply because the county's timely capitulation rendered unnecessary equitable relief that Reyazuddin would have otherwise been entitled to."

Joseph Espo, an attorney for Reyazuddin, told Law360 the ruling brought the long-running suit closer to an end.  He didn't yet have an estimate of the fees his client will request when the case is remanded but expects "a big number."