A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Behrend Law Group Denied Fee Bid in School Mask Dispute” reports that a group of parents who sued to make a Pittsburgh-area school district keep its mask mandate were not the "prevailing party" for the purpose of awarding Behrend Law Group attorney fees just because the Third Circuit had temporarily restored the mask order, a Pennsylvania federal judge ruled. U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV said he had denied the parents a temporary restraining order on the district, and they had never argued their case on the merits on appeal, so a temporary order from a single Third Circuit judge keeping the masks on until the case was dismissed was not the same as a win – and didn't merit nearly $109,000 in fees and costs that the parents' attorneys sought from the Upper St. Clair School District.
"The interim relief granted by the Third Circuit to maintain the status quo pending appeal does not constitute relief on the merits and does not render plaintiffs prevailing parties," Judge Stickman wrote. "Plaintiffs had the burden of establishing their right to relief as prevailing parties, and the court has determined that they failed to do so. Attorney fees are, therefore, not available."
Attorneys Ken Behrend and Kevin Miller had represented a group of parents of children with disabilities who claimed in January that the school district's decision to make masks optional while COVID-19 was still spreading would put their children at risk. The school district, the parents claimed, had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by forcing them to choose between risking infection and being shunted back into online learning.
Judge Stickman had denied the parents' request for an injunction, ruling that they were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their ADA claim. But when they appealed to the Third Circuit later in January, U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas L. Ambro issued an order that temporarily granted the parents' request to keep the district's mask mandate while the case was pending.
Briefs were submitted, and the case was set for argument in March along with a similar suit from the North Allegheny School District, where a different judge had granted another group of parents' request for an injunction keeping masks. But before the case was argued, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention issued new guidance for measuring the level of the pandemic's spread and the necessity of masks, such that the Third Circuit declared the appeals moot.
When Behrend and Miller argued that the Third Circuit had granted the relief their clients wanted and they were entitled to fees, the school district countered that he hadn't actually gotten a ruling on the merits and therefore hadn't "prevailed." Judge Stickman agreed. In other cases, the Third Circuit had denied fees to parties that had gotten temporary restraining orders and rulings that they had a likelihood of success on the merits, but the parents in Upper St. Clair hadn't even gotten that much, Judge Stickman said. The Third Circuit's order wasn't enough, either, he said.
"The relief afforded to plaintiffs was not merits-based," Judge Stickman wrote. "Here the Third Circuit's entry of a temporary emergency injunction was specifically viewed by that court as temporary. Moreover, it did not even attempt to discuss and determine the substantive issues raised by the parties -- much less express a determination that plaintiffs had satisfied their burden to demonstrate that injunctive relief was warranted."
Without prevailing on the merits, the parents and Behrend could not seek to make the school district pay their attorney fees and were left to cover their own costs, the judge said.