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Fitzgerald v. City of Los Angeles

April 7, 2009

DONALD FITZGERALD, DELBERT EUGENE HUDSON, DILWORTH MENEFELE AND MARIO YOUNGBLOOD, AS INDIVIDUAL PLAINTIFFS AND AS REPRESENTATIVES OF THE CLASSES, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF LOS ANGELES, CHIEF OF POLICE WILLIAM BRATTON AND CAPTAIN CHARLIE BECK, IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES, AND DOES 1-10, IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dean D. Pregerson United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES [Motion filed on March 6, 2009]

This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorneys' Fees. Plaintiffs seek attorneys' fees for time spent on their motion to extend the injunction issued in this case and for time spent between the extension of the injunction and the entry of the enforceable settlement agreement on February 17, 2009. Defendant City argues that Plaintiffs have waived any claim to attorneys' fees for this work, that Plaintiffs do not meet the standard for attorneys' fees, and that their fee requests are unreasonable. After reviewing the materials submitted by the parties and hearing oral argument, the Court grants Plaintiffs' motion.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs, who are persons living in the area of Los Angeles commonly known as "Skid Row," filed their Complaint on March 10, 2003. Plaintiffs filed their suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that a Los Angeles Police Department search and seizure policy violated the Fourth Amendment and seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. This case was assigned to the Honorable Nora Manella. On March 31, 2003, the Court granted a temporary restraining order. The Court granted a preliminary injunction on April 14, 2003.

A. The Settlement Agreement

On December 8, 2003, the Court approved a settlement between the parties. The Settlement Agreement stated the parties' "desire to resolve this matter without further litigation" and that they "therefore intend with this Settlement Agreement to resolve all issues pertaining to case number CV03-1876 upon the terms and conditions set forth in this Agreement." Def. Ex. 7 at ¶ E. The Settlement Agreement provided for a stipulated three-year permanent injunction. Id. at §§ I-II. The permanent injunction enjoined the City of Los Angeles as follows: (1) officers were prohibited from conducting detentions or "Terry" stops without reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity or has committed a crime or violated parole or probation, but were not prohibited from engaging in consensual encounters; (2) officers would not search the persons/possessions of those stopped on the public streets and sidewalks of the Skid Row area without probable cause or reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime or violated parole or probation, though officers were not prohibited from performing "pat-down" searches in accordance with law; and (3) officers would not search the residences of those on Skid Row except in certain circumstances. The Settlement Agreement provided that the plaintiffs could move for an extension of the injunction for a period of up to 36 months. Id. at § II.

The Settlement Agreement further provided for a payment to plaintiffs and attorneys fees and costs. Specifically, section IV of the Settlement Agreement, titled "Attorney's Fees and Costs" provided:

Within 60 days after this Agreement is executed by all parties, Defendants City of Los Angeles will pay plaintiffs the amount of $75,000 and plaintiffs' attorneys fees and cost [sic] in the amount of $94,720. Plaintiffs accept this amount as full payment for any all monetary amounts owed in connection with Case Number CV03-1876, and, on behalf of themselves, hereby release all defendants, as well as all other employees and entities of the City of Los Angeles, from any further obligations to pay any further amounts.

Id. at § IV. Section V, titled "Release of Defendants," stated: "Except as provided for in this Agreement, plaintiffs hereby release Defendants . . . from any an all obligations and liabilities in connection with the injunctive relief claims in case number CV03-1876 and the allegations made therein."

On the same day, Judge Manella also granted plaintiffs' application for attorneys' fees. Plaintiffs requested $94,720 in fees and costs, and presented documentation showing that this number reflected billable hours up to that point. See Order Granting Plaintiffs' Application for Attorneys' Fees, at 4-5 (Docket No. 42) (December 8, 2003). Overall, the Court granted $93,091 in attorneys' fees and $1,258.19 for costs, for a total of $94,393.19. Id. at 6.

B. Extension of the Injunction

Plaintiffs filed a motion to extend the original injunction on December 8, 2006. The Court extended the injunction until it could decide the motion. On April 20, 2007, the Court granted the motion to extend the injunction for a period of four months (120 days) from the issuance of the order because "even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Defendants, they have admitted to an unconstitutional policy." See Order Granting Motion to Extend Injunction (Docket No. 64) (April 20, 2007) at 32-33. The Court posited that the four-month period "should provide the LAPD with ample time to review its policies and practices to ensure that they comply with current Fourth Amendment law." Id. at 32.

On July 11, 2007, Defendants filed a motion to vacate the injunction. This motion was noticed for hearing on August 6, 2007. Plaintiffs opposed the motion on the grounds that Defendants were still not abiding by the terms of the injunction and had not satisfied the legal standard for vacating it. On August 20, 2007, Plaintiffs filed a second motion to extend the injunction, alleging that Defendants were continuing to violate its terms. Prior to the hearing on the motion, the parties initiated settlement negotiations. These negotiations eventually resulted in the parties' reaching a settlement agreement, which the Court signed on February 17, 2009. See Docket Entry Nos. 113 (February 3, 2009) and 117 (February 17, 2009). The agreement provides that (1) searches incident to arrest are not permissible when a person is cited for an infraction or misdemeanor and released, (2) that the police may not compel persons to answer whether they are on probation or parole, and (3) that the time for a warrant check may not exceed the time reasonably required for an officer to complete his or her other duties. Settlement and Order (Docket Entry No. 117), at ¶¶ 6, 13, 17.*fn1 The February 17, 2009 Settlement and Order noted the parties' disagreement over the issue of attorneys' fees. Id. at ¶ 21.

Plaintiffs filed this Motion on March 6, 2009. Plaintiffs seek attorneys' fees incurred (1) in litigating the motion to extend the injunction in 2006 and 2007 and (2) for time spent between the extension of the injunction and the entry of the enforceable settlement agreement on February 17, 2009.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, a district court in its discretion may award a reasonable attorney's fee to the prevailing party in § 1983 litigation. 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). Under § 1988, "a prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 4429 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted). A plaintiff "prevails" when there is a material alteration of the legal relationship between the parties that modifies the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff. See Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992). Settlement agreements enforced through consent decrees can form the basis of an attorneys' fee award. Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home v. W. Va. Dep't of Health & Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 603-04 (2001); Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129 (1980). Additionally, a district court has the discretion to award fees to a prevailing party in consent decree litigation for work reasonably spent to monitor and enforce compliance with the decree. Keith v. Volpe, 833 F.2d 850, 855-57 (9th Cir. 1987); N.A.A.C.P. v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist., 284 F.3d 1163, 1166 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Volpe and noting that this principle is "settled law" in the Ninth Circuit). Attorneys' fees may be waived as part of the settlement process. Evans v. Jeff D., 475 U.S. 717, 737-38 (1986).

California law also provides a basis for attorneys' fees in some actions.*fn2 Pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5, "a court may award attorneys' fees to a successful party . . . in any action which has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest," where certain requirements are met. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1025.1. Attorneys' fees will be appropriate if (a) a significant benefit has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons, (b) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement make the award appropriate, and (c) such fees are not paid out of the recovery. Id. Although the section "is phrased in permissive terms . . ., the discretion to deny fees to a party that meets its terms is quite limited," and generally requires a full fee award unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust. Lyons v. Chinese Hospital Ass'n, 136 Cal. App. 4th 1331, 1344 (2006).

Where a plaintiff is entitled to attorneys' fees, a district court must determine the amount of a reasonable fee. The "starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. The Court should exclude from the initial fee calculation hours that were not reasonably expended. Id. at 434. There is a strong presumption that the lodestar figure represents a reasonable fee. Jordan v. Multnomah County, 815 F.2d 1258, 1262 (9th Cir. 1987). After calculating the "lodestar," other considerations "may lead the district court to adjust the fee upward or downward." Id. Among those other considerations is "the important factor of the 'results obtained.'" Id.; see also id. at n.9 (suggesting that the factors identified in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.3d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974), may be particularly helpful, but also noting that "many of these factors usually are subsumed within the initial calculation of hours reasonably expended at a reasonable hourly rate").

III. DISCUSSION

Defendant City of Los Angeles ("City" or "Defendant") argues that Plaintiffs are not entitled to the fees they request. First, and primarily, Defendant argues that Plaintiffs are entitled to no fees because the 2003 Settlement Agreement waived any rights to attorneys' fees for work performed in the future. Second, in the alternative, Defendant attacks the fees Plaintiffs request and asks the Court to award less.

A. Waiver

As a threshold matter, Defendant argues that Plaintiffs waived their right to attorneys' fees through the December 2003 Settlement Agreement.*fn3 As mentioned above, the general rule is that a prevailing party in a civil rights action -- including one concluded through settlement -- is entitled to attorneys' fees. Where parties in a civil rights action resolve the action by settlement, the availability of attorneys' fees for successful plaintiffs may be waived as part of the settlement process. Evans v. Jeff D., 475 U.S. 717, 737-38 (1986). In the Ninth Circuit, however, a waiver of attorneys' fees must be clear: "a prevailing plaintiff may sue for reasonable attorneys' fees unless the defendant shows that the plaintiff clearly waived fees as part of the settlement." Muckleshoot Tribe v. Puget Sound Power & Light Co., 875 F.2d 695, 697 (9th Cir. 1989); see Wakefield v. Mathews, 852 F.2d 482 (9th Cir. 1988). A defendant may demonstrate a waiver of attorneys' fees in two ways. The basic rule is that the court focuses on "the language in the settlement agreement." Id. at 698. "[A] waiver of attorneys' fees may be established by clear language in the release," either because it "contains an explicit reference to fees" or because "the breadth of the release is so 'sweeping' that it necessarily includes attorneys' fees." Id. Alternatively, "if the language in the release is unclear or ambiguous, surrounding circumstances may clearly ...


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