The Supreme Court, responding to a common complaint that lawyers often do better than their clients in civil rights cases, agreed yesterday to decide whether the fees attorneys receive in those cases must be proportional to the awards won by their clients.
The court agreed to hear a case in which the winning attorneys in a suit against the Riverside, Calif., police department were awarded $245,000 -- even though their eight clients received a total of only $33,350 for civil rights violations.
The justices, before taking a two-week recess, also added nine more cases to their docket for the 1985-86 term. The court agreed to decide:
*Whether airlines that do not receive direct federal financial assistance must obey federal laws that prohibit discrimination against the handicapped.
*If local governments must compensate property owners when zoning or other decisions prevent development or other uses of privately owned land.
*What evidence police must present to courts before they can seize allegedly obscene movies from video rental stores.
In the attorneys' fees case, City of Riverside v. Santos Rivera, eight Mexican-Americans sued the city and a large number of police officers after police broke up a large party in the Latino section in 1975 and arrested many of the guests.
After four years of pretrial skirmishing and a nine-day trial, a jury found that the city and four officers violated the rights of eight of those at the party and awarded $33,350 in damages.
A trial judge, applying a federal law that gives winning civil rights lawyers "reasonable" fees, awarded the lawyers $245,456 to be paid by the city. A federal appeals court upheld the award, saying the police acted "without a warrant but with tear gas and unnecessary physical force."
The appeals court said Congress, in enacting provisions for attorneys' fees for those winning civil rights suits against the government, specifically wanted to ensure access to the courts by the poor and minorities. There does not need to be a relationship between the amount of damages awarded and the amount of attorneys' fees awarded, the court said.
Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist issued a stay of that ruling last August, saying that the award, "representing more than seven times the amount of the monetary judgment obtained, is so disproportionately large that it could hardly be described as 'reasonable.' "
In a second action, the court agreed to hear the Reagan administration's argument that major airlines should not be covered by a 1973 law that prohibits discrimination against the handicapped by anyone receiving federal financial assistance (Department of Transportation v. Paralyzed Veterans of America.)
A federal appeals court here last January said all airlines must obey the 1973 law, since they receive major federal assistance through the use of federally assisted airports, air traffic controllers and in other ways.
The appeals panel said it made no sense for the law to apply in obtaining an airline ticket, checking baggage and using a boarding ramp but not on an airline itself.
The appeals court overturned a Civil Aeronautics Board finding that only those smaller airlines receiving a direct subsidy from the government would be required to adhere to the antidiscrimination law.
The Reagan administration appealed, arguing that the appeals court ignored a major 1984 ruling, Grove City College v. Bell, in which the court said only specific programs or activities receiving federal aid would be covered by antidiscrimination laws.
The acceptance for review of the zoning case, MacDonald, Sommer & Frates v. Yolo County, represents the fourth time in five years that the court has agreed to review a case involving the obligation of local governments to pay property owners when zoning decisions severely restrict the commercial use of their lands. The court, for varying reasons, has been unable to resolve that issue.
In this case, a land developer purchased 44 acres near Davis, Calif., for residential development. After the purchase, the county zoned it for agricultural use only, preventing the development.
The developers argue that the property is unsuitable for agriculture and the effect of the local government actions has been to unconstitutionally deprive them of their property without adequate compensation.
A high court ruling, expected by July, could have a significant effect in the battle between developers and local governments nationwide.