Friday, September 15, 2023

Fleeting Victory

The united States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied attorneys fees to couples who had challenged COVID-related limits on the size of their weedings

Plaintiffs are five individuals—two couples, each engaged to be married when they filed suit, and a New York-based minister. During the summer of 2020, the five brought a constitutional challenge to New York regulations issued earlier that year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting to fifty the number of attendees permitted at non-essential gatherings, including weddings. Eight days before the first of the scheduled weddings, the five sought a preliminary injunction in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York barring enforcement of the limitation as to their planned gatherings. After expedited briefing and a hurriedly conducted oral argument, the district court granted their motion and preliminarily enjoined the State from enforcing its gathering limit against Plaintiffs just forty-five minutes before the wedding ceremony was to begin. See DiMartile v. Cuomo, 478 F. Supp. 3d 372, 389 (N.D.N.Y. 2020) (Suddaby, J.) (“PI Order”). The first couple held their wedding that afternoon. Within a few days, Defendants appealed, and not long after, we granted their request for a stay pending appeal.

After the second couple announced that—regardless of the outcome of the appeal—they no longer planned to hold a wedding, we dismissed the appeal as moot and remanded with instructions to the district court to vacate the preliminary injunction. On remand, all five Plaintiffs moved for attorney’s fees. The district court denied their motion, deciding that, under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, none were prevailing parties. All five then timely appealed.

On de novo review, we AFFIRM the district court’s order. Its grant of a preliminary injunction in this case was insufficient to confer prevailing party status on any of the five Plaintiffs, including the couple that married during the brief period in which the preliminary injunction was in effect. Our Court’s grant of a stay to Defendants just two weeks after the hurried proceedings in the district court, followed by Plaintiffs’ mooting of the appeal, made their victory too fleeting to make them eligible for a fee award under Section 1988.

As to the wedding that did not take place

Here, Defendants obtained a stay before Giglia and Durolek’s planned wedding ceremony on August 22. The litigation for that couple ended when they mooted their own claims during the pendency of Defendants’ appeal. In their own words, Giglia and Durolek had “their hopes ripped away” by the stay, Reply Br. 5 n.2, and they then “made the difficult decision to postpone their wedding ceremony indefinitely,” Appellants’ Br. 16. The preliminary injunction thus did not modify Defendants’ behavior towards Giglia and Durolek in a way that provided them with any direct benefit. At the end of the litigation, Giglia and Durolek left the courthouse both emptyhanded and unwed.

(Mike Frisch)

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