Many people whose rights have been violated are unable to find an attorney who’s willing to take their case. That is because the amount of money at stake is often just too small to warrant an attorney’s time. Sure we lawyers are interested in doing justice, but we have to feed our families too, just like everyone else.
That is why many civil rights laws also provide for a separate award of attorney fees to the attorney. This way, attorneys will be willing to take on not just the multi-million dollar lawsuits, but the small ones too.
The Labor and Employment Law Blog reports on a case involving an award of fees to the plaintiff’s attorney that was far larger than the amount awarded to the plaintiff himself. In Harman v. City and County of San Francisco, 158 Cal. App. 4th 407 (Cal. Ct. App. 2007), white plaintiff Allen Harman had filed a complaint against the City and County of San Francisco, the San Francisco Airport Commission and others for employment discrimination. He initially filed in federal court. After lengthy proceedings, that complaint was dismissed and Harman then filed a new complaint in state court. The state court judge eventually threw out the case (on a motion for summary judgment). Harman appealed and got one of his claims (42 USC 1988) reinstated.
Harman proceeded to trial after settlement discussions failed. The jury found in Harman’s favor and then awarded $15,500 for economic damages and another $15,500 for emotional distress, for a grand total of $30,300.
Harman’s lawyers then requested attorney fees in the amount of $1,095,202 for their work on a litigation that had spanned seven years. The trial court awarded the entire sum to the attorneys. Defendants appealed and the Court of Appeal ordered the trial court to try again.
The trial court took into the account the additional attorney time expended on the appeal and this time awarded attorney fees of $1,113,905.40 (I wonder where that 40 cents came from). Defendants appealed yet again, arguing that the $1+ mil. in attorneys fees was out of whack with the $30,300 award they had won for Harman.
This time the Court of Appeal essentially upheld the attorney fee award, saying that attorney fees need not be proportional to the verdict amount and that the trial court had not abused its discretion (although they ordered the trial court to take off the fees for work relating to the first appeal).
Defense attorneys love to argue that attorney fees should be proportional to the actual amount awarded to the plaintiff. Thus a small verdict means the attorneys fees should be slashed. If that were the case, we’d be right back to square one with attorneys refusing to take on small civil rights cases. This case should provide for a ringing response to that argument.