The ruling overturns a 2013 federal court decision that Jon Buckheit must pay San Mateo County $145,434 in attorney fees because his claims against the county in his 2009 lawsuit were frivolous.
A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Count of Appeals found otherwise: "We conclude that the connection between Buckheit's claims and the County is 'tenuous, but not frivolous'," the judges wrote.
Mr. Buckheit's lawsuit stemmed from his October 2008 arrest after he called Atherton police out to his home, reporting that he had been the victim of domestic violence by his then-girlfriend. Although he was taken into custody and prohibited from returning to his home for several days, he was never charged, and later was granted a declaration of factual innocence in San Mateo County Superior Court.
In including the county in his lawsuit, Mr. Buckheit alleged that the town and county had entered into an agreement in which the county would create what he believed to be a discriminatory policy on dealing with domestic violence accusations. He also alleged that the county conspired with the town to retaliate against him after he petitioned the court for a determination of factual innocence. The retaliation involved refusing to provide a copy of the police report on the incident, he said.
The lawsuit was dismissed by Federal Court Judge Joseph Spero in April 2012, and the judge granted the county's petition for attorney fees.
Mr. Buckheit filed an appeal challenging the fee ruling as well as Judge Spero's rejection of his claim that the county violated his First Amendment rights by withholding a copy of the police report.
The appeals court judges wrote that they could see "no evidence that the County's district attorney had a copy of the police report when Buckheit requested it from him. Nor is there evidence that the County's actions were motivated by retaliatory intent. Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary — that the County tried to help Buckheit get a copy of his police report but could not persuade the Town of Atherton to produce it."
But the judges sided with Mr. Buckheit on the fee issue, noting that at issue was a civil rights claim, and that a civil rights defendant (in this case, the county) may be granted attorney fees "only where the action brought is found to be unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious." Although they agreed with the county that Mr. Buckheit's claims were "extremely weak," they disagreed that there was "no legal or factual basis" for them, they wrote.
"The County acknowledged at oral argument that it had a role in the formation of the domestic violence policy followed by the officers who arrested Buckheit," the ruling said. "A challenge to that policy's provisions, as interpreted by the arresting officers, impelled Buckheit's suit."
The judges also noted that awarding fees to defendants who prevail in a civil rights lawsuit could discourage people from filing such lawsuits, which could undercut "the efforts of Congress to promote the vigorous enforcement of the civil rights laws," they wrote.
Brian Wong, deputy county counsel, said county officials had sought attorney fees because "we take the taxpayers' resources seriously," but the county "is unlikely to appeal the decision."
While pleased with the judges' ruling on fees, Mr. Buckheit said he continues to believe the county retaliated against him in not producing the police report. County officials "wanted to punish someone who challenged the system ... and they wanted to discourage anyone else from doing it," he said.
Unless the county appeals the decision, he said, the years-long saga is over. "Not in my memory, but legally speaking."