The Law School Authority

City of Riverside v. Rivera Case Brief

Summary of City of Riverside v. Rivera, U.S. Supreme Ct. (1986)

Cause of action: The following is a cause of action for reversal of damages shifted to DF’s as the result of violation of various federal civil rights statutes.

Procedural History: Respondents sued the police officers who broke up the party, the city and its chief of police under 42 USC §§1981, 1983, 1985(3) and 1986, seeking damages and injunctive relief.  23 officers of the 30 moved for summary judgment; 17 motions were granted.  Remaining DF’s found 37 individual verdicts, 11 civil rights violations and other violations.  Respondents awarded $33.5K in compensatory & punitive damages.

But respondents were not done: they requested compensation under §1988 for attorney’s fees, which all totaled almost $290K.  District Court found hours and rates reasonable ($125/hr lawyers; clerks $25/hr), awarding respondents the monies requested.  Appellate Court affirmed.  Cert granted, and this Court affirms.

Facts: Peaceful party broken up by cops with brut force, resulting in arrests as well.  Petitioners argue damages were not reasonable within the meaning of §1988, b/c it was disproportionate to the amount of damages recovered by respondents.

Issue(s): Under federal law of civil procedure, is an award of attorney’s fees under 42 USC §1988 per se unreasonable within the meaning of the statute if it exceeds the amount of damages recovered by PL in the underlying civil rights action?

Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: Loadstar (hours reasonably expended multiplied by reasonably hourly rate) is the number which the damages are called as per §1988, and they can be raised or reduced, depending upon how well the facts measure up to the analysis.  But the loadstar shouldn’t be reduced b/c a lawyer failed to prevail on every contention raised in suit.

The size of damages was lower in this case b/c (1) PL’s were reluctant to play up their harm, and (2) there was a fear of punishing officers with high-dollar amounts in equivalent fines.  The case presented complex issues of law and fact.  The respondents achieved a high level of success in this case that makes the total number of hours spent by counsel a proper basis for making the fee award.

Petitioner: damages should be contingent fee-based and should be proportional to actual damages award to respondents.  Court: this is not a private torts suit, this is a civil rights suit which is for all people, which generally results in the actual number be lower, so the attorney’s fees, although significantly greater than the actual, is the result of the lack of damages pursued, not the other way around.

There are important social beliefs not reflected in the award, where respondent’s counsel acted as “private attorney generals,” which is how Congress perceived the statute.  It also never perceived the awards to reflect the social justices they serve to create, and thus the damages were not intended to be proportional.  If the fees were struck from the award, it would undermine legislative intent.  This would make it difficult for less financially stable people to take their causes of action to court.  This is why the enforcement of civil rights is not on a private-sector based system of awards.

Rule: 42 USC §1988, Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, authorizing district courts to award reasonable attorney’s fees to prevailing parties in specified civil rights litigation.  House and Senate define “reasonable” as 12 factors (part II footnote).

Holding: No.  Under the analysis in Hensley,  the lower court properly applied the test, and the award is both adequate and fair.

Dissenting: (Rehnquist, Chief Justice, White and O’Connor): The award should be set according to traditional billing practices and determining what reasonable hours are under the federal statute (which the majority never decided it was).  The case, if brought as a tort cause of action, would probably merit anywhere from $10K to $75K in damages; would attorneys put in that much time to research and deliberate that case?  (they fail to see tort and civil rights are different)

Concurring: (Thomas) The award is bad on its face, but the Court should not strike down the award.



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