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8th Circuit Awards Atty. Fees to Westboro Member

ST. LOUIS (CN) - The Eighth Circuit vacated judgments against Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church, and awarded her attorneys' fees relating to a civil rights lawsuit against of Missouri.

Westboro gained national notoriety for having its members protest military funerals because they believe the deaths of United States soldiers are a judgment from God for the country's acceptance of homosexuals.

In 2006, Phelps-Roper filed a lawsuit against Missouri, claiming newly enacted statewide restrictions on pickets and protests near funerals and funeral processions violated her constitutional rights.

Though Phelps-Roper won a preliminary injunction in 2009, that was overruled three years later in another lawsuit filed by Phelps-Roper against the city of Manchester, in which the court held that the government's interest in protecting citizens from unwanted speech extends beyond the privacy of the home.

On remand and after the federal court issued the preliminary injunction, Phelps-Roper amended her complaint twice to add defendants and counts.

During a prolonged litigation, Missouri repealed the statues in question on Aug. 28, 2014. Five days later, the federal court entered an order denying Phelps-Roper's motion to amend or alter a judgment.

One week later, Phelps-Roper filed a motion requesting that the court vacate the first judgment as moot given the repeal, but the court denied it.

Phelps-Roper also filed a motion awarding her $298,841.25 in attorney's fees and $4,044.30 in expenses.

The court awarded Phelps-Roper $133,425.34 in attorney's fees and full expenses. The court awarded her full fees from 2006 to 2009 ($65,325.00) and 2/14th of the remaining fees ($30,899.29) because she was only successful on two of her 14 claims.

A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit ruled that the federal court erred in not finding Phelps-Roper's motion as moot and vacated the judgments against her.

"The State of Missouri repealed the statutes in controversy while Phelps-Roper's due process claim (Count XIV) remained pending in the district court," Judge Kermit E. Bye wrote. "Because the challenged statutes ceased to exist, a case in controversy regarding Phelps-Roper's due process claim also ceased to exist. Her challenge thus became moot. In such circumstances, the prevailing practice among district courts is to vacate judgments related to the merits of a challenge."

The 8th Circuit also found in favor of Phelps-Roper's argument that the reduction in attorney's fees was unfair because it did not accurately reflect the success of her case.

"First, the district court's calculation was improper because its arithmetically simplistic fee award did not contemplate Phelps-Roper's overall degree of success," Bye wrote. "The 2/14th calculation did not consider the relative importance and interrelation of Phelps-Roper's claims. Nor did it recognize Phelps-Roper's success on some claims rendering her alternative claims irrelevant."

Judges William Jay Riley and Raymond W. Gruender concurred.

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