Fourth Circuit Affirms District Court's Denial of Rule 60 Relief from Sec. 1988 Attorneys' Fees Award
Today the Fourth Circuit in Wendt v. Leonard issued an opinion upholding a district court's denial of Rule 60 relief from the imposition of attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1988. The plaintiff in the action, Wendt, had brought a frivolous civil rights claim clearly barred by the Tax Injunction Act (28 U.S.C. sec. 1341). After declaring that it lacked jurisdiction over Wendt's claim under the Act, the court imposed attorneys' fees under sec. 1988. Wendt never appealed that determination. However, six months after the fact he sought relief from the order under Rule 60(b)(4), arguing that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over his claim and thus lacked jurisdiction to impose attorneys' fees.
The district court denied Rule 60 relief and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The panel, per Judge Traxler, stated that belated Rule 60 motions cannot substitute for a timely appeal. Thus, relief is only warranted when the jurisdictional error alleged is "egregious." Because circuits are split on whether court's lacking jurisdiction over the underlying civil rights claims may nonetheless impose attorneys' fees under sec. 1988, the panel concluded that the district court had an arguable basis for jurisdiction and the error, if any, was not egregious.
Because of the procedural posture of the case as an appeal from the denial of Rule 60 relief, the court found no need to weigh in on the matter that divides the circuits, which as mentioned, is whether court's lacking jurisdiction over the underlying civil rights claims may nonetheless impose attorneys' fees under sec. 1988.