Blum v. Stenson - 465 U.S. 886 (1984)
U.S. Supreme Court
Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886 (1984)
Blum v. Stenson
Argued January 11, 1984
Decided March 21, 1984
465 U.S. 886
Respondent -- who was represented by attorneys from the Legal Aid Society of New York, a private nonprofit law office -- filed a civil rights action in Federal District Court on behalf of a statewide class of Medicaid recipients. The complaint challenged certain procedures utilized for termination of Medicaid benefits. The District Court certified the class and entered summary judgment for it. After the Court of Appeals affirmed, respondent filed in the District Court a request for an award of attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, which provides that, in federal civil rights actions
"the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs."
The total requested fee amounted to $118,968, consisting of $79,312 based on some 809 hours of work at rates varying from $95 to $105 per hour, plus a 50% "bonus" of $39,656 to compensate for the complexity of the case, the novelty of the issues, and the "great benefit" achieved. The District Court awarded the full amount requested, holding that the hours expended and the rates charged, in view of prevailing market rates, were reasonable, and that the 50% bonus was proper because of the quality of representation, the complexity of the issues, the riskiness of success, and the "great benefit to the large class" that was achieved. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
1. The statute and its legislative history establish that "reasonable fees" are to be calculated according to the prevailing market rates in the relevant community, not according to the cost of providing legal services, regardless of whether the prevailing party is represented by private profitmaking attorneys or nonprofit legal aid organizations. Policy arguments in favor of a cost-based standard should be addressed to Congress, rather than to this Court. Pp. 465 U. S. 892-896.
2. The District Court abused its discretion in awarding the 50% upward adjustment in the fee in this case. Pp. 465 U. S. 896-902.
(a) There is no merit to the argument that an "upward adjustment" of a reasonable fee -- calculated by multiplying the reasonable number of hours expended times a reasonable hourly fee -- is never permissible. The statute and its legislative history establish that the "product of reasonable
hours times a reasonable rate" normally provides a "reasonable" attorney's fee, but "in some cases of exceptional success, an enhanced award may be justified." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U. S. 424, 461 U. S. 435. Pp. 465 U. S. 896-897.
(b) However, respondent failed to carry her burden of proving that an upward adjustment was necessary to the determination of a reasonable fee in this case. The record contains no evidence supporting the District Court's conclusions that the upward adjustment was proper because of the complexity of the litigation, the novelty of the issues, the high quality of representation, and the "great benefit" to the class. These factors generally are reflected in the reasonableness of the number of billable hours or the hourly rates. Moreover, the record does not justify the District Court's upward adjustment on the basis of the "riskiness" of the law suit. Respondent established only that the hourly rates and the hours billed were reasonable. Pp. 465 U. S. 898-902.
671 F.2d 493, affirmed in part and reversed in part.
POWELL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 465 U. S. 902.