The Supreme Court, in a major victory for civil rights groups, ruled 5 to 4 yesterday that lawyers who win civil rights suits against government and businesses must be paid "reasonable" attorneys fees -- even if those fees amount to several times what their clients received.
The court rejected arguments by the Justice Department, joined by business groups, that Congress intended such attorneys' fee awards to be proportional to the damages collected by victims of discrimination.
The court, acting in an 11-year-old case from Riverside, Calif., upheld a $245,000 fee award in a case involving a police break-up of a party on the edge of a Chicano barrio. The party-goers who sued the police received only $33,500 in damages.
"A rule of proportionality," Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said, "would make it difficult, if not impossible, for individuals with meritorious civil rights claims but relatively small potential money damages to obtain redress from the courts."
Brennan said in Riverside v. Rivera that such a rule would be "totally inconsistent" with Congress' intentions in passing the 1976 attorneys fees law. The law allows winning attorneys in civil rights cases to collect "reasonable" fees from the losers.
Dissenters, led by Justice William H. Rehnquist, said the court was turning the 1976 law into "a relief act for lawyers." Rehnquist said while Congress may have wanted to ensure that the poor had access to lawyers, it never "intended to turn attorneys loose to spend as many hours as possible to prepare and try a case that could reasonably be expected to result only in a relatively minor award of monetary damages."
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, also in dissent, warned that yesterday's ruling "will unfortunately only add fuel to the fires of public indignation over the costs of litigation."
Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who cast the critical fifth vote concurring with Brennan's opinion, said the fee award in this case -- $245,000 to the lawyers while a jury awarded the plaintiffs only $33,500 -- seemed "on its face . . . unreasonable."
But Powell, who said he had "serious doubts as to the fairness of the fees awarded" said that neither the court nor Congress intended to make fees proportional to the damages. He said the judge in the case "made an explicit finding" that the public interest had been served by the jury's verdict that local police, long accused of discriminating against Chicanos, had violated the rights of those at the party.
The case had been carefully watched by both sides. Civil rights organizations said a strict proportionality rule might work for medical malpractice or accident cases with multimillion-dollar jury awards, but it would be devastating for civil rights enforcement.
Riverside's attorney argued that this case and similar rulings nationwide had created a "growth industry" of lawyers who are raiding "the coffers of defendant municipalities, states and other government agencies."
But Gerald Lopez, one of the winning attorneys, said yesterday that local governments, facing a clearly meritorious claim could protect themselves by making an early, reasonable settlement offer.
Lopez, whose bill, with interest, is now about $500,000, said Riverside refused to make any settlement offer until trial and then the offer was unreasonably low.