Big Legal Fees in Rights Suits OKd : Justices Rule Payments May Greatly Exceed Awards Won
The Supreme Court, in a decision that could prove costly to cities and other defendants in civil rights suits, ruled Friday that attorneys may be awarded far more in fees than those they represent receive in damages for violation of their rights.
The justices voted 5 to 4 to uphold an award of $245,456 in fees to lawyers who won $33,350 in damages for eight people in a suit against the city of Riverside, Calif., and police officers found to have used excessive force in breaking up a party.
The court rejected the contention that attorney fee awards should not be exceed the damages won in a civil rights case.
Justice William J. Brennan Jr., joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, said a requirement of proportionality “would make it difficult, if not impossible,” to find legal representation in cases in which potential damage awards were relatively small.
Pivotal Fifth Vote
Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., providing a pivotal fifth vote to form the majority, said in a concurring opinion that he had “serious doubts” about the award--but that proportionate fee awards were not required under the law.
In a biting dissent, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger called the award “legal nonsense” and said that the ruling “will unfortunately only add fuel to the fires of public indignation over the costs of litigation.”
Justice William H. Rehnquist, joined by Burger and Justices Byron R. White and Sandra Day O’Connor, said the decision had turned the law “into a relief act for lawyers.”
The case (Riverside vs. Rivera, 85-224) had drawn attention because of the growing controversy over substantial fee awards in civil rights cases against often financially pressed state and local governments.
Laws ‘Shift’ Fees
Ordinarily, each side in a lawsuit pays its own legal costs--but Congress has enacted many “fee-shifting” statutes in which plaintiffs who win suits or obtain favorable settlements against governmental bodies are entitled to be paid attorneys’ fees by the other side. Legislation to limit awards has been introduced but not passed.
The Reagan Administration supported Riverside in the case, contending that fee awards should not “unjustly enrich” plaintiffs’ lawyers at the expense of defendants.
Civil rights groups argued that a limit on fees would discourage attorneys from taking cases that may not generate large damage awards but do uphold important rights.
Jonathan Kotler, the attorney who represented Riverside in the case, predicted that the ruling would open municipalities and other governmental units to more costly awards--and make it much more difficult to obtain insurance against them.
‘There’s No Shame’
“What we have here is a tremendous economic victory for plaintiffs’ lawyers,” Kotler said. “There is no limit to what attorneys can bill for legal fees. Where the plaintiffs’ bar is concerned, there’s no shame.”
Charles Stephen Ralston of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund praised the ruling, saying that, if the court had limited fee awards, lawyers in small firms particularly “would understandably have been very reluctant to take such cases.”
Ralston assailed the Administration for seeking to limit such fees. “They don’t want to enforce civil rights, and they don’t want anyone else to enforce them either,” he said.
The case began in 1975, when police officers in Riverside, acting without a warrant, used tear gas and other physical tactics in making arrests at a party. The charges were dropped, and eight persons, including the hosts, Jennie and Santos Rivera, brought a suit in federal District Court, charging violation of their civil rights.
Got $125 an Hour
The court held that the policemen had used unreasonable force and awarded the plaintiffs $33,350 in compensatory and punitive damages. Their two attorneys, Gerald P. Lopez and Roy B. Cazares, sought fees of $495,713.51 for their work in the case. The judge cut the request to $245,456.25, or about $125 an hour spent on the case. A federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld the award.
Brennan, in the high court’s plurality opinion, said that, unlike other cases, civil rights suits seek to uphold rights “that cannot be valued solely in monetary terms.” Limits on fees, he said, would “seriously undermine” the purpose of the law allowing fee awards.
Powell’s concurrence said that the award on its face “seems unreasonable” but added that it was permissible in view of the District Court’s finding that the suit served “the public interest.”
Neither Lopez, now a law professor at Stanford University, nor Cazares, a municipal judge in San Diego, could be reached for comment.