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Justices deny Montgomery’s bid for review of fee award in disability case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear Montgomery County’s request that the justices review and overturn an attorney’s fee award to a blind employee whom the county was found to have discriminated against but who was awarded no damages and who received reasonable job accommodations for her disability without a court mandate.

In a one-line order, the high court let stand without comment a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that Yasmin Reyazuddin was a “prevailing party” in her discrimination lawsuit and thus entitled to attorney’s fees under the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits disability-based discrimination against public-sector employees.

The 4th Circuit said Reyazuddin had “prevailed” because a jury found the county discriminated against the call center worker by failing to provide reasonable accommodations for her blindness. The county subsequently “capitulated” due to the lawsuit and provided accommodations without a court order to do so, the 4th Circuit added in its published 3-0 decision in February.

The county, in its unsuccessful petition for Supreme Court review, contended that a party “prevails” under the law when she or he is awarded either damages or a court order of reasonable accommodations — and Reyazuddin received neither. Attorney’s fees may not be awarded to a plaintiff who has shown no financial loss and whose lawsuit served as a mere “catalyst” for the defendant providing accommodations, argued Associate Montgomery County Attorney Erin J. Ashbarry, the county’s counsel of record before the high court.

Reyazuddin’s attorney, Joseph Espo, had waived his client’s right to respond to the county’s petition for Supreme Court review unless the justices requested a response, which they never did.

Reyazuddin’s case will now return to the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt for a determination of the attorney’s fee award.

“We’re happy that the court denied cert.,” said Espo, referring to the Supreme Court’s consideration of certiorari, or review. “It was a long fight.”

Espo is with Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore.

Montgomery County representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The case was docketed at the high court as Montgomery County, Md. v. Yasmin Reyazuddin, No. 21-299.

In 2016, a U.S. District Court jury in Greenbelt found the county violated the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide Reyazuddin computer software that would have allowed her to continue to work as an information specialist in a county call center.

The litigation arose after the county consolidated the Department of Health and Human Services call center, where Reyazuddin worked, into the Montgomery County 311 call center. The county declined to integrate the screen access software Reyazuddin had been using, which enabled her to access computer programs that converted information on a computer screen into synthesized speech or Braille.

The county argued that the $400,000 upgrade would impose an undue financial hardship on the county and transferred Reyazuddin to a position that paid the same but did not provide work she found as meaningful.

The jury ruled for Reyazuddin on her discrimination claim but awarded no damages.

She moved for a court order for accommodations. However, before that case went before a judge, the county upgraded the MC 311 call center to accommodate Reyazuddin.

Reyazuddin’s counsel moved for attorney’s fees, which U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow denied in September 2019, citing the jury’s award of no damages and the absence of a court order for accommodations.

But the 4th Circuit disagreed, saying Reyazuddin prevailed because she won on her discrimination claim.

“Reyazuddin isn’t a prevailing party because she catalyzed the county to change its behavior by filing a lawsuit; rather she’s a prevailing party because she proved her claim to a jury before the county capitulated by transferring her to MC 311,” Judge Albert Diaz wrote for the 4th Circuit.

“Had the county transferred Reyazuddin to MC 311 before she proved that its refusal to do so amounted to discrimination, this would be a classic catalyst theory case” without a prevailing party entitled to attorney’s fees, added Diaz, who was joined by Judges Stephanie D. Thacker and Pamela A. Harris. “Likewise, had Reyazuddin sought only damages against the county, her failure to obtain any would mean she wasn’t a prevailing party. 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 was otherwise entitled to.”

The 4th Circuit had sent the case back to the district court to calculate the attorney’s fee award when the county petitioned the Supreme Court for its review.

The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in Yasmin Reyazuddin v. Montgomery County, Md., No. 19-2144.