Case Remanded for Fee Reconsideration by District Judge.
California federal courts, at least in civil right cases, require more detailed findings in fee awards conferred to plaintiffs than our state courts do under similar circumstances. (As discussed in posts listed under our category "Cases: Civil Rights," state courts do require specific findings in FEHA fee awards in favor of defendants as to frivolousness and as to plaintiffs' ability to pay; use our sidebar widget to do a blog search under Rosenman v. Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro, 91 Cal.App.4th 859 (2001).) The next case demonstrates the rigor with which our Ninth Circuit requires findings in actions brought under 42 U.S.C. section 1983.
McCown v. City of Fontana, Case No. 07-55896 (9th Cir. Dec. 24, 2008) (certified for publication) involved a civil rights plaintiff suing City of Fontana, its police department and two officers for nine claims, sounding in wrongful detention, false arrest, deliberate indifference by City, and excessive force through use of a Taser. Eight of nine claims were resolved against plaintiff through summary judgment, but the excessive force claim survived. The parties settled in a way by which plaintiff obtained $20,000 on the sole remaining claim, stipulated that the plaintiff was the prevailing party under the section 1988 fee-shifting statute, and reserved the determination of fee/costs amounts to the district judge.
Plaintiff sought $301,551.22 in fees and $15,034.10 in costs. City vigorously opposed the request on the basis the request should be reduced for plaintiff's failed claims and limited success (losing 8 out of 9 claims). The district judge reduced the award of attorney's fees to $200,000 and awarded all requested costs. City appealed.
The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded for a recalculation of fees/costs.
Remand was required for two principal reasons:
- Although deciding the $400-$550 per hour claimed rate was inappropriate, the district judge failed to provide any explanation of numbers of hours allowed or the attorney hourly rate actually allowed. (Chalmers v. Los Angeles, 796 F.2d 1205, 1211, 1213 (9th Cir. 1986).)
- The district judge--although correctly deciding that the unsuccessful claims had a "common core of facts" to the successful claim so as to not require apportionment--failed to factor plaintiff's level of success into the fee calculus. "[W]e hold that attorney's fees awarded under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1988 must be adjusted downward where the plaintiff has obtained limited success on his pleaded claims, and the result does not confer a meaningful public benefit." (Slip Opn., at p. 16767.)
The Ninth Circuit even went on to provide clues on how the fee award recalculation should proceed upon remand. Plaintiff settled for less than one-tenth of his $251,000 settlement demand and only won one-ninth of his presented claims. Although eschewing a purely mechanistic result, the ratios provide by the Court of Appeals sent some signal of what should be weighed on the "limited success" size of equation, heightened by the Ninth Circuit's determination that the end result was not an "excellent result" based on the fact the case was brought against two officers and did not result in any change in police department policy.
Sheep Dip, Fontana. Library of Congress