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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

No Attorneys' Fees in Civil Rights Case Involving a Technical Victory

A plaintiff filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Chicago and four police officers alleging that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when his home was searched for drugs and drug paraphernalia. Although the search was pursuant to a search warrant, the plaintiff claimed that the officers significantly damaged his home, damaging furniture and other personal belongings.  Plaintiff asked for $25,000 in compensatory damages and $100,00 in punitive damages.  The jury found for the plaintiff on only one of his claims, awarding him $100 in compensatory damages. 
After receiving the jury verdict, plaintiff then filed a claim for $116,437.50 in attorneys' fees, arguing that because he succeeded in his case against one of the defendants, he was a prevailing party under Section 1988 and entitled to recover his fees.  The district court judge denied the attorney fee claim, and the plaintiff appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  Aponte v. Chicago, et al.
The court acknowledged that Section 1988 authorizes a prevailing party in a Section 1983 lawsuit to recover the party's attorneys' fees.  The court cited to U.S. Supreme Court cases holding that even a nominal victor (i.e., a plaintiff awarded only nominal damages, typically defined as $1.00) is considered a prevailing party and eligible for a "reasonable" attorneys' fee.  However, the Supreme Court also held that a reasonable attorneys' fee for a nominal victor is usually zero because a nominal award is significantly less than what the plaintiff requested as relief. 
In this case, the plaintiff argued that the Supreme Court's "nominal victor" analysis should not apply to him, because he was awarded $100 in compensatory damages, rather than the typical $1.00 nominal award.  The Seventh Circuit disagreed, however, ruling that the same analysis applies to "technical victories" such as plaintiffs, where the actual award is significantly less than what the plaintiff sought.  The Seventh Circuit used a mathematical analysis in determining that the damages awarded were minimal in relation to the amount of damages sought - the plaintiff had only a 0.4% success rate ($100 in damages awarded divided by the $25,000 requested = 0.4%) and he lost seven of his eight claims.  As a result, plaintiff was not entitled to an attorneys' fee award for his "insignificant" victory that merely vindicated his own personal rights.
This is a significant ruling for local governments in those situations where a jury awards more than a nominal victory, but far less than the amount of damages a plaintiff seeks in a civil rights case, as attorneys' fees may not be awarded in those cases.   


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