E.D. Cal. Federal Magistrate Judge Applied 40% Downward Adjustment Based on Limited Success.
Hall v City of Fairfield, Case No. 2:10-cv-0508 DAD (E.D. Cal. Doc. No. 227 Mar. 31, 2014 [order granting attorney’s fees]) is a tutorial on principles governing award of attorney’s fees in the civil rights area under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b).
What happened in this one is that some civil rights plaintiffs sued after they claimed to the wrongful subjects of citizen arrests by a manager of In-N-Out Burgers, Inc. in arrests involving City of Fairfield law enforcement officers. The incident arose from apparently confusing plaintiffs, African Americans, with another group of unruly patrons in the area. In-N-Out settled out with three plaintiffs for $180,000, while City of Fairfield went to trial. The three plaintiffs prevailed in the aggregate amount of $12,150, even though they had rejected an aggregate F.R.Civ.P. 68 offer of $15,000 ($5,000 each). After the merits verdict (which was only based on some claims), U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd, who presided over the trial, awarded plaintiffs fees of $308,221.80 under the federal civil rights statute (out of a requested $692,870.75) against City.
Magistrate Judge Drozd found that the small jury verdict alone was not the proper lodestar measure for an award of civil rights fee given that a fee award had to vindicate plaintiffs’ civil rights and send a deterrent message to law enforcement officials.
The defense argued that plaintiffs did not beat the Rule 68 offer, but this was rejected because preoffer costs of $183,899.09 had to be considered such that the meager offer was indeed “beaten” by plaintiffs.
The federal magistrate judge sustained awarding hourly rates of $260 and $350 to the civil rights attorneys prosecuting the case on behalf of plaintiffs, commensurate with Sacramento hourly rates.
Generalized defense objections to hours expended did not trump specific billings, although the magistrate judge did find some reductions were in order to arrive at a base lodestar of $513,703.
However, the limited success of plaintiffs—both as to claims and the amount of damages ultimately obtained—did lead to a 40% downward adjustment to the ultimate $308,221.80 fee award.
HAT TIP—To our follower Carter C. White of U.C. Davis School of Law, who called this case to our attention.