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McAfee v. Boczar, Nos. 12-2481, 13-1088, 13-1356

Decided: December 12, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that the defendant, deputy sheriff Christine Boczar, was not entitled to qualified immunity in defense to the plaintiff’s § 1983 claim. However, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s award of attorney’s fees and reduced the award to $100,000.

In December 2010, Eileen McAfee stopped at a house in Powhtan County, Virginia, to help a dog that appeared to be in distress. As McAfee tried to give the dog a treat, the dog accidentally bit her hand, causing McAfee to seek medical treatment at a local hospital. The hospital reported the dog bite to Powhatan County Animal Control. Boczar, an animal control officer, investigated the dog bite. In January 2011, she called McAfee to ask about the dog bite and asked where the dog was housed. McAfee responded that she did not know the address, but could lead Boczar to the dog’s location. Bozcar declined McAfee’s offer and never followed up with her about the dog’s location. Bozcar then spoke with two other people in attempts to locate the dog; neither person knew about the dog’s location. Boczar then attained an arrest warrant for McAfee from a state court magistrate on the grounds that McAfee refused to disclose the location of a possibly rabid animal in violation of state law. McAfee was arrested and subsequently acquitted.

After McAfee was acquitted, she sued Bozcar on three counts: (1) a violation of § 1983 for an arrest in contravention of McAfee’s Fourth Amendment rights, (2) a claim for malicious prosecution, and (3) a false imprisonment claim. At trial, the jury found for McAfee on the § 1983 claim only. The jury did not award any compensatory or punitive damages above McAfee’s $2,943.60 in expenses related to her state defense. The court decided against Bozcar on the issue of qualified immunity. Finally, the court awarded $365,027 in attorney’s fees and an additional $10,000 in costs. Bozcar appealed the district court’s denial of her qualified immunity defense and claimed that the fee award was excessive in violation of law.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit first affirmed the district court’s determination that Bozcar’s arrest was not subject to qualified immunity. Bozcar’s decision to arrest McAfee is only shielded by qualified immunity if the knowledge that Bozcar possessed was sufficient to convince a person of reasonable caution that McAfee committed offense in violation of state law. The Fourth Circuit agreed that Bozcar did not have sufficient information to convince a reasonable person that McAfee violated state law. Bozcar only spoke to three witnesses, none who suggested that McAfee was refusing to disclose the dog’s location. Furthermore, Bozcar lied to the Magistrate about the facts surrounding McAfee’s arrest, suggesting that Bozcar knew that her evidence did not meet the probable cause standard. Therefore, Bozcar cannot insulate herself from liability under qualified immunity.

Second, the Fourth Circuit determined that the attorney’s fee award was unreasonable. Although McAfee was the prevailing party, the attorney’s fee award grossly overrepresented the success of the verdict. McAfee only received compensation for her uncontested expenses in defending the state law claim. She received nothing on her additional compensatory and punitive damages claims. Furthermore, she received nothing for the causes of action beyond § 1983. Such a minimally successful plaintiff’s verdict was insufficient to support a fee award that was more than 100 times the award for compensatory damages. Therefore, the court vacated the fee award and remanded to the district court with the instructions to return a judgment for attorney’s fees in the amount of $100,000.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert