Court Criticizes Attorneys In Fee Dispute


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The Sixth Circuit has written an enormous opinion discussing legal fees incurred in a long-pending civil rights case. The lawyers are entitled to seek fees for the vindication of constitutional rights. However, as the court notes, they seem to have gone a bit overboard:

“The original petition for fees in this case, for example, yielded requests for dry cleaning bills, mini blinds, and health insurance. Though these requests were later dropped after being challenged, they exemplify the overcompensation some attorneys are apt to seek in litigation of this type—decades long class actions involving thousands
of hours of work, numerous iterations of consent decrees, and years in-between spent enforcing and defending prior successes.

There are two sides to these attorney-fee debates, and we must honor both of them. On the one hand, § 1988 plays a critical role in “ensur[ing] that federal rights are adequately enforced,” and attorneys have every right to be compensated for any fees and expenses they reasonably incur. Perdue v. Kenny A. ex rel. Winn, 130 S. Ct. 1662, 1671 (2010). On the other hand, these cases can all too easily become a way of life for the attorneys involved, and consequently over time it can become increasingly unclear, for both the attorneys and the courts, precisely what work falls within the ambit of § 1988. This case presents us with an opportunity to clarify the standards for when time spent. defending or enforcing a prior consent decree is compensable under § 1988.”

Comment: Lawyers who seek recovery for dry cleaning bills, mini blinds and health insurance have lost touch with the basic ethical rules of the legal profession and should be referred to the State bar for discipline. If lawyers already aren’t favored by many people, this sure won’t help our image.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.

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