A successful plaintiff in a civil rights case is entitled to reimbursement of its attorneys' fees from the government defendant unless the damage award is considered nominal. However, that does not mean that a court will rubber stamp the plaintiff's request for attorneys' fees - the court has the discretion to determine whether the fee request is "reasonable" in a particular case. So, if a court finds that a plaintiff is only partially successful, or the damages award is only a fraction of what the plaintiff sought in its case, a court can reduce the attorneys fee award. That is exactly what the court did in a recent excessive force case involving the City of Chicago.
In Montanez v. Simon (7th Cir. June 18, 2014), plaintiff had brought a civil rights action against Chicago claiming that two CPD officers had used excessive force while arresting him for drinking on a public way. The case went to trial, and a jury awarded him $2,000 in damages. Plaintiff's attorney submitted its fee petition to the court, which asked for $426,000 in attorneys' fees and $6,500 in costs and expenses. The City objected to the petition as unreasonable, and the district court judge reviewed the bills line-by-line, striking entries that were unnecessary, duplicative, excessive, or improperly documented. 7 lawyers had billed 1,021 hours on the case, and the court struck time billed by 3 of the lawyers who were only tangentially involved in the case. The judge also struck time for a mock trial and time spent shopping for clothes for a witness, as well as other time entries. The court also reduced the hourly billing rates from $450/hour to $385/hour for the lead lawyers and set the hourly rate at $175/hour for associates. The court then reduced the adjusted bill again, by 50%, to reflect the fact that the plaintiff lost 4 of his 6 claims and was awarded only $2,000 in damages. The final award to the plaintiffs was $108,350.87 in fees and $3,051.94 in costs. The plaintiffs appealed the reduced award to the Seventh Circuit.
The Seventh Circuit started its analysis by suggesting that trial court judges be more active in its case management of these cases to "check runaway attorney's fees while the litigation is underway," rather than waiting until the case is over to review a fee request. With respect to the substance of the appeal, the Court acknowledged that trial court judges have broad discretion to determine what fees are reasonable - in this case, the district court judge spent a significant amount of time and effort in reviewing line-by-line the attorney fee petition, and did not abuse her discretion in striking certain entries, reducing the hourly rate, and slashing the lodestar by 50%. The Court acknowledged that while a plaintiff who receives "excellent results" should receive the entire lodestar, where a plaintiff achieves only "partial or limited success," the lodestar should be reduced. In this case, the plaintiff's success was severely limited ($2,000 in damages), and the reduction was appropriate. In short, the Court upheld the trial court's reduced award.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink