Plaintiffs challenged the amount of attorney’s fees awarded to Defendants, after Defendants’ successful civil rights actions.
A party seeking attorney’s fees under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976 are entitled to fees corresponding to the number of hours reasonable expended multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.
In 1975, Plaintiffs were attending a party that was broken up by the Riverside police who used tear gas and physical force without a warrant. Subsequently, Plaintiffs filed suit in a federal district court against Defendants, alleging violations of their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The jury found in the individuals’ favor and awarded $33,350 in compensatory and punitive damages. The individuals also sought attorney’s fees under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976 in the amount of $245,456.25, based on 1,946.75 hours expended by their two attorneys at $125 per hour and 84.5 hours expended by law clerks at $25 per hour. Finding both the hours and rates reasonable, the District Court awarded the requested amount, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The appellate court found that the fee award was not excessive merely because it exceeded the amount of damages awarded by the jury. Defendants appealed the attorney’s fees award, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the award and remanded the case to be reconsidered in light of Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). The district court and the appellate court affirmed the award again.
Was the attorney’s fees awarded to Plaintiffs reasonable in light of Hensley v. Eckerhart when it exceeded the amount of damages recovered by the plaintiff in the underlying civil rights action?
Yes. The Court held that there was no requirement under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976 that attorneys’ fees be proportionate to the amount of damages a civil rights plaintiff might recover.
Justice Burger, Rehnquist, White, O’Connor
The dissent argued that an award of attorney’s fees was not justified in light of the small return of compensatory and punitive damages. It was unreasonable for Plaintiffs’ lawyers to spend so much time on the case. The analysis of whether an extraordinary number of hours put in by the attorneys was reasonable must be made in light of both the traditional billing practices in the profession and the fundamental principle that the award of a reasonable attorneys’ fee under § 1988 means a fee that would have been deemed reasonable if billed to affluent plaintiffs by their own attorneys.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger joined the dissenting opinion but wrote another separate dissent to emphasize that the hourly rate the attorneys received for their work was extremely unreasonable. This was because the attorneys were inexperienced and no private party would have ever dreamed of paying such novice attorneys an hourly of $125/hour in 1975.
A party seeking attorney’s fees under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976 are entitled to fees corresponding to the number of hours reasonable expended multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). Hensley also stated that hours not ‘reasonably expended’ on the litigation should not be included in the calculation of attorney’s fees. The Act does not require that the attorneys’ fees be proportionate to the amount of damages a civil rights plaintiff might recover. Here, the district court’s finding that the award should be based on all hours spent litigating the case and that the hours should be compensated at prevailing market rates even though the plaintiffs’ attorneys were young was not an abuse of discretion. If attorneys are not awarded attorneys’ fees because they ultimately lost the case (similar to a contingent fee arrangement), it would discourage attorneys from taking civil rights cases. Additionally, limiting attorney’s fees to only a proportion of the amount recovered in the underlying civil rights action would undermine the purpose of § 1988, which was to ensure that those who suffer civil rights violations have means to litigate their claims. The district court’s award of attorney’s fees was reasonable. The defendants’ appeal is denied.