Statutory Fee-Shifting Provisions Can Have Real Force In A Case For A Prevailing Party, Even If The Compensatory Damages Award Is Much Less Than Requested Fees.
Federal Theatre. 1936. Library of Congress
The Bane Act, Civil Code section 52.1, is a broadly-worded California civil rights statute first enacted to combat hate crimes, but construed to protect against all conduct aimed at infterfering with rights secured by the constitutional or statutory law of the U.S. or California where the inference is carried out by threats, intimidation or coercion, whether or not the offending conduct is motivated by discriminatory animus. It is frequently used in the police misconduct area. The important thing, at least for this post, is that allows the trial court to award the plaintiff reasonable attorney’s fees. (Civ. Code, § 52.1(h).) These awarded fees can be quite hefty, even in comparison to the compensatory damages garnered by a prevailing plaintiff. Cornell v. City and County of San Francisco, Case Nos. A141016/A142147 (1st Dist., Div. 4 Nov. 16, 2017) (published) illustrates this well, although the facts of the case were not ones most defendants would want to defend.
Basically, plaintiff was a police officer trainee, who while off-duty and in street clothes, went for a run one morning in Golden Gate Park, stopping for a brief rest on a knoll called “Hippie Hill.” From there, two uniformed police officers thought plaintiff was suspicious, resulting in an altercation which result resulted in a criminal arrest/citation (he was taken into custody for six hours and then let go), no subsequent prosecution, and a lost job as a result of the arrest/citation. Plaintiff sued for various torts and under the Banes Act, obtaining a jury verdict award of $575,231 in damages. The trial judge then awarded $2,027,612.75 in fees/costs on the Banes Act claim.
Everything was affirmed on appeal, the merits judgment and the fees/costs award. The main merits issue was resolved by a holding that a Banes Act violation is tested by whether the arresting officer had a specific intent to violate the arrestee’s right to freedom from unreasonable seizure, not whether the evidence shows some “coercion” beyond the wrongful detention itself. Once this mens rea element was resolved in a civil context, the fees/costs award was easily affirmed given that no argument was raised to overturn it except based on the merits of the jury verdict in favor of plaintiff (which was sustained on appeal).