Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Panel Orders New Look at Fee Award in Rights Case
Judges Question Lack of Cost Order for Prevailing Defendants
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An order awarding $600,000 in fees and court costs to the plaintiff in a civil rights case against a small California city, while denying costs to several defendants against who all claims were dismissed, was overturned yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The panel said U.S. District Judge James Ware of the Northern District of California correctly stated the rules governing awards of attorney fees under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988, but failed to explain how the rules were applied in Joseph Padgett’s suit against the City of Monte Sereno.
Monte Sereno, a city of fewer than 4,000, is located in the foothills between San Jose and Los Gatos. Joseph and Darla Padgett had a long-running battle with the city, claiming that officials there sought to arbitrarily limit the height of a wooden fence on their property, and harassed and threatened them when they complained about selective enforcement.
They sued the city, the mayor, the city manager, a former city employee, and the members of the city council. They alleged that the defendants violated the First Amendment by retaliating against them for their speech, and the Fourteenth Amendment by selectively enforcing the fence restriction, and the Fourth Amendment by measuring the height of the fence without their consent.
They also pled a California statutory civil rights claim and common law claims for extortion and infliction of emotional distress.
All of the defendants except the mayor and city manager were dismissed from the case prior to trial, Judge Janet Murgia explained for the Court of Appeals, and all claims against those two defendants were dismissed, except for those arising under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The jury found that then-Mayor A. Curtis Wright deprived Joseph Padgett, but not his wife, of freedom of speech, and did not deprive either plaintiff of equal protection. Jurors awarded Padgett $1 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages.
The panel deadlocked on the claims against City Manager Brian Loventhal, but Ware granted him judgment as a matter of law following the trial.
Joseph Padgett moved for $3.2 million in attorney fees and $900,000 in costs. Such an award would have exceeded the city’s annual budget.
Ware, noting that the plaintiffs had been largely unsuccessful on their claims, cut the request significantly, but denied costs to the prevailing defendants.
Muguia, however, wrote that judges, like math students, must “show their work” when awarding attorney fees under the lodestar method. It is not enough merely to recite the applicable principles, as Ware did in a footnote, the appellate judge said.
“Without an adequate explanation by the district court, an appellate court is unable to determine if the district court abused its discretion,” Murguia wrote.
“The mandate that district courts show their work is all the more important in cases where, as here, there are many overlapping claims and a very mixed result.”
The judge explained that plaintiffs’ attorneys in civil rights cases may be fully compensated for work that relates to both successful and unsuccessful claims, but not for work that relates solely to unsuccessful claims.
The district judge further erred in failing to explain how he arrived at the cost award, Murguia wrote.
The case is Padgett v. Loventhal, 10-16533.
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