City of Riverside v. Rivera
477 U.S. 561 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561 (1986)

City of Riverside v. Rivera

No. 85-224

Argued March 31, 1986

Decided June 27, 1986

477 U.S. 561

Syllabus

Respondents, eight Chicano individuals, attended a party at the home of two of the respondents. A large number of officers of petitioner city's police force, acting without a warrant, broke up the party by using tear gas and unnecessary physical force, and many of the guests, including four of the respondents, were arrested. Criminal charges were ultimately dismissed. Respondents filed suit in Federal District Court against the city, its Chief of Police, and 30 individual police officers under various federal Civil Rights Acts, alleging violations of respondents' First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as numerous state law claims. Ultimately the jury returned 37 individual verdicts in favor of respondents and against the city and five individual officers, finding 11 violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 4 instances of false arrest and imprisonment, and 22 instances of negligence. Respondents were awarded $33,350 in compensatory and punitive damages. They also sought attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, in the amount of $ 245,456.25, based on 1,946.75 hours expended by their two attorneys at $125 per hour and 84.5 hours expended by law clerks at $25 per hour. Finding both the hours and rates reasonable, the District Court awarded respondents the requested amount, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. This Court remanded for reconsideration in light of the intervening decision in Hensley v. Eckerhart,461 U. S. 424, and the District Court, after additional hearings and review of the matter, made extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, and again concluded that respondents were entitled to an award of the requested amount of attorney's fees. The Court of Appeals again affirmed, ruling, inter alia, that the fee award was not excessive merely because it exceeded the amount of damages awarded by the jury.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

763 F.2d 1580, affirmed.

JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by JUSTICE MARSHALL, JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded that:

1. Under Hensley v. Eckerhart, supra, which announced certain guidelines for calculating a "reasonable" attorney's fee under § 1988, the "lodestar" figure, obtained by multiplying the number of hours reasonably

Page 477 U. S. 562

expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate, is presumed to be the reasonable fee contemplated by § 1988, and an important factor, among others, for consideration in adjusting the lodestar figure upward or downward is the "results obtained." Where a plaintiff has obtained excellent results, his attorney should recover a fully compensatory fee, and the fee award should not be reduced simply because the plaintiff failed to prevail on every contention raised in the lawsuit. The record here establishes that the District Court correctly applied the factors announced in Hensley, and did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney's fees for all time reasonably spent litigating the case. Pp. 477 U. S. 567-573.

2. There is no merit to the argument that Hensley's lodestar approach is inappropriate in civil rights cases where a plaintiff recovers only monetary damages, and that, in such cases, fees in excess of the amount of damages recovered are necessarily unreasonable. Although the amount of damages recovered is relevant to the amount of attorney's fees to be awarded under § 1988, it is only one of many factors that a court should consider in calculating an award of attorney's fees. Pp. 477 U. S. 573-580.

(a) A civil rights action for damages does not constitute merely a private tort suit benefiting only the individual plaintiffs whose rights were violated. Unlike most private tort litigants, a civil rights plaintiff seeks to vindicate important civil and constitutional rights that cannot be valued solely in monetary terms. Because damages awards do not reflect fully the public benefit advanced by civil rights litigation, Congress did not intend for fees in civil rights cases, unlike most private law cases, to depend on obtaining substantial monetary relief, but instead recognized that reasonable attorney's fees under § 1988 are not conditioned upon, and need not be proportionate to, an award of money damages. Pp. 477 U. S. 574-576.

(b) A rule limiting attorney's fees in civil rights cases to a proportion of the damages awarded would seriously undermine Congress' purpose in enacting § 1988. Congress enacted § 1988 specifically because it found that the private market for legal services failed to provide many victims of civil rights violations with effective access to the judicial process. A rule of proportionality would make it difficult, if not impossible, for individuals with meritorious civil rights claims but relatively small potential damages to obtain redress from the courts, and would be totally inconsistent with Congress' purpose of ensuring sufficiently vigorous enforcement of civil rights. In order to ensure that lawyers would be willing to represent persons with legitimate civil rights grievances, Congress determined that it would be necessary to compensate lawyers for all time reasonably expended on a case. Pp. 477 U. S. 576-580.

3. Although Congress did not intend that statutory fee awards produce "windfalls" to attorneys, neither did it intend that attorney's fees be proportionate to the amount of damages a civil rights plaintiff

Page 477 U. S. 563

might recover. Rather, there already exists a wide range of safeguards that are designed to protect civil rights defendants against the possibility of excessive fee awards, and that adequately protect against the possibility that § 1988 might produce a "windfall" to civil rights attorneys. Pp. 477 U. S. 580-581.

JUSTICE POWELL concluded that the District Court's detailed findings concerning the fee award, which were accepted by the Court of Appeals, were not "clearly erroneous" for purposes of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a), and that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in making the fee award. JUSTICE POWELL also concluded that neither the decisions of this Court nor the legislative history of § 1988 support a rule of proportionality between fees awarded and damages recovered in a civil rights case, and rejected the argument that the prevailing contingent fee rate charged by counsel in personal injury cases should be considered the reasonable fee for purposes of § 1988. Pp. 477 U. S. 581-586.

BRENNAN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 477 U. S. 581. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 477 U. S. 587. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 477 U. S. 588.

Page 477 U. S. 564

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