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North Dakota Farm Bureau, Inc. v. Stenehjem

United States District Court, D. North Dakota

August 27, 2019

North Dakota Farm Bureau, Inc., Galegher Farms, Inc., Brian Gerrits, Breeze Dairy Group, LLC, North Dakota Pork Council, and Bill Price, Plaintiffs,
v.
Wayne Stenehjem, in his official Capacity as Attorney General of North Dakota, Defendant, Farmers' Educational and Cooperative Union of America North Dakota Division, d/b/a North Dakota Farmers Union, Intervenor-Defendant, Dakota Resource Council, a North Dakota Nonprofit Corporation, Intervenor-Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES AND COSTS

          Daniel L. Hovland, Chief Judge

         Before the Court is the Plaintiffs' motion for attorney's fees and costs filed on April 10, 2019. See Doc. No. 134. They seek $250, 589.33 in attorney's fees and $435.00 in costs. The Defendant, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (“State”), filed a response in opposition to the motion on April 24, 2019. See Doc. No. 140. The Plaintiffs filed a reply brief on May 1, 2019. See Doc. No. 143. The State filed a surreply on May 8, 2019. See Doc. No. 146. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Plaintiffs brought this action challenging the constitutionality of Chapter 10-06.1 of the North Dakota Century Code (the “Corporate Farming Law”) in June of 2016. The Corporate Farming Law regulates and limits ownership of farm and ranch land in North Dakota. The Plaintiffs specifically challenged N.D.C.C. § 10-06.1-12 (the “family farm exception, ”) which allows corporate entities to own farmland, but only under certain conditions.

         The Plaintiffs sued Attorney General Stenehjem in his official capacity, and two non-profit organizations subsequently joined the litigation as Intervenor-Defendants. The Plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the Corporate Farming Law under three constitutional provisions: the Commerce Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and the Privileges and Immunities Clause. All of the claims were pursued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         The litigation proceeded through written discovery and motion practice. On September 21, 2018, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiffs, finding that the family farm exception violates the dormant Commerce Clause. See Doc. No. 119. The Plaintiffs conceded their claims under the Privileges and Immunities Clause should be dismissed. As a remedy, the Court found that the offending language in the family farm exception could be severed, and enjoined the State from enforcing the family farm exception in a manner which limits its application to only North Dakota corporations and limited liability companies.

         Following the Court's Order granting summary judgment on the dormant Commerce Clause claim, the parties stipulated to the dismissal of the Equal Protection claim. See Doc. No. 129. The Court entered final judgment on March 20, 2019. See Doc. No. 130. In its final judgment, the Court “permanently enjoined” the State of North Dakota from:

…enforcing or seeking to enforce Section 10-06.1-12 of the North Dakota Century Code in a manner which limits its application to only North Dakota corporations and limited liability companies, and must permit corporations and limited liability companies organized under the laws of other states to utilize the family farm exception, so long as they meet the other requirements of the current law which are not the subject of this litigation.

See Doc. No. 119, p. 39. Neither side appealed. Now before the Court is the Plaintiffs' motion for attorney's fees and costs. See Doc. No. 134.

         II. LEGAL DISCUSSION

         The Plaintiffs, as the prevailing party in a lawsuit brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, bring this motion to recover attorney's fees and costs from the State under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The State raises several objections to the motion, each of which the Court will address in turn.

         A. PREVAILING PARTY

         The State contends the Plaintiffs are not a prevailing party despite having obtained a permanent injunction on their dormant Commerce Clause claim prohibiting the enforcement of the family farm exception in a manner which treats out-of-state corporations and limited liability companies differently than North Dakota corporations and limited liability companies. The Court finds the contention unpersuasive.

         42 U.S.C. § 1988 permits, but does not require, the award of reasonable attorney's fees to the “prevailing party” in an action to enforce a provision of, inter alia, Section 1983. To qualify as a prevailing party, “a civil rights plaintiff proceeding under § 1983 ‘must obtain at least some relief on the merits of his claim.'” North Dakota v. Lange, 900 F.3d 565, 567 (8th Cir. 2018) (Colloton, J., concurring) (quoting Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111 (1992)). A plaintiff need not prevail on every claim or theory as long as it succeeds on “any significant claim.” Texas State TeachersAss'n v. Garland Indep. ...


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