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Jordan v. Fusari

decided: April 29, 1974.


Appeal from order of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Robert C. Zampano, J., awarding counsel fees to attorneys for plaintiffs-appellees after settlement of plaintiffs' lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Remanded for further proceedings.

Kaufman, Chief Judge, Feinberg and Mulligan, Circuit Judges.

Author: Feinberg

FEINBERG, Circuit Judge:

This case involves the tail end of what might have been major litigation over the constitutionality of the State of Connecticut's policy of denying unemployment compensation to thousands of women in the months before and after childbirth. Commendably, the suit has been settled, and the only question on appeal is the propriety of an award of attorneys' fees to counsel for plaintiffs by order of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Robert C. Zampano, J. The record on this basic issue is sparse, however, and the questions raised have been complicated by developments following entry of the challenged order. Accordingly, for reasons discussed in detail below, we remand to the district court for further consideration.

In March 1973, plaintiff Sabine D. Jordan brought this action in the district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated. Naming various state officials as defendants, the complaint sought, among other things, an injunction against -- and a judgment declaring the unconstitutionality of -- section 31-236(5) of the Connecticut General Statutes, which is reproduced in the margin.*fn1 In part, that statute provides:

No woman shall be eligible to receive benefits within two months before childbirth and, if such child is alive, such ineligibility shall continue for two months after childbirth.

The complaint alleged that withholding of unemployment compensation benefits from plaintiffs' class "solely on the basis of a condition of . . . sex is arbitrary and unreasonable and bears no rational relation to the purpose of compensating unemployed workers in the State of Connecticut" and thus denies plaintiffs' class due process and the equal protection of the law.

After the complaint was filed, the Connecticut legislature repealed the statute on May 4, 1973, effective October 1, 1973. This action, however, did not affect claims made prior to that date by women in plaintiffs' class. Meanwhile, in the period of March through June 1973, the parties held conferences, wisely encouraged by Judge Zampano, which resulted in a settlement of all issues in the case but one. Plaintiff agreed to withdraw a claim of discrimination she had filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and to drop as parties defendant all those originally named except Jack A. Fusari, Commissioner of Labor and Administrator of the state's unemployment compensation program. Defendant Fusari promised to pay plaintiff the benefits owed her. He further agreed to stop enforcing the statute quoted above*fn2 (which otherwise continued in effect until October 1, 1973); to notify women, denied benefits because of the statute, of their right now to claim them; and to review their applications fully and fairly, paying all sums found to be due in the absence of the statutory bar.

The matter left open by the settlement was the question of attorneys' fees. Since most of the discussions were understandably informal, we have, even on this limited issue, not very much of a record. Apparently defendant was at one time willing to pay a lump sum award of $2,500, whereas plaintiff and her counsel believed that substantially more (25 per cent of benefits obtained) was warranted. But no one could be sure what the benefits would finally total since members of the class had to make, or renew, as yet undetermined claims. After hearing defendant's objections, the judge held ten per cent of benefits to be an appropriate fee. He ordered defendant to deduct this amount from claims awarded to members of plaintiffs' class and to forward the sums to plaintiffs' counsel monthly. The award rested on the theory that plaintiffs' lawyers had created -- or would create -- a fund benefiting a whole class, from which it was only just to compensate the attorneys. The court later noted:

I am absolutely satisfied that the only reason the State is making payments today on these claims, and will until October . . . 1973, when the new law goes into effect, is because of this present lawsuit . . . .

In the following month, defendant asked the court to reconsider the order, claiming apparently for the first time that deduction of attorneys' fees from unemployment insurance benefits violated federal and state law. (Indeed, defendant opposed the allowance of any sum because of the non-profit status of plaintiffs' out-of-state counsel.) Judge Zampano held a hearing on these questions and adhered to his prior ruling that plaintiffs' lawyers were entitled to a ten per cent fee. He modified his prior order, however, to require that the funds be placed in escrow rather than disbursed to the attorneys, until this court had a chance to rule on the matter. The present appeal followed.


In his brief and in oral argument in this court, appellant Fusari advances a number of reasons why the order of the district court, as modified, was improper. Some of appellant's contentions seem unimpressive; e.g., the position, renewed on appeal, that compensation was not warranted because one of the law firms representing plaintiffs' class is a non-profit organization, Women's Law Fund, Inc. But at least one argument gives us substantial pause. This is the claim that federal law*fn3 prevents any deduction for attorneys' fees from a claimant's unemployment insurance benefits. Accordingly, we asked for, and obtained, the definitive view of the United States Department of Labor on this issue, and they strongly support appellant's position. Briefly, the United States argues, Judge Zampano's order violates those federal statutes that provide that moneys in the unemployment fund of a state are to be used "solely in the payment of unemployment compensation." 26 U.S.C. § 3304(a) (4); 42 U.S.C. § 503(a). The Government also relies on long-standing administrative interpretation supporting its view in this matter. Appellees, on the other hand, not only challenge the conclusions of the United States on the authorized use of benefit funds; they also point to alternate sources of money to reimburse their counsel -- such as, for example, the "employment security special administration fund" created by the State of Connecticut. C.G.S.A. § 31-259(d).*fn4 Although it is by no means clear which party is correct, it is evident that the issue is substantial and was presented to the district court only as an afterthought, without the considered imprimatur of agencies of the United States. This state of affairs is particularly unfortunate since the district court apparently had made an effort to obtain these views, but had met with no success.*fn5 Nevertheless -- even in this posture of the case -- we would ordinarily proceed to decide the issue, if we were persuaded that it was necessarily dispositive.

However, a number of circumstances suggest the desirability of another course. One is the argument made to us by appellees that the allowance of counsel fees can be justified on other grounds, which have never been presented to the district court. Thus, appellees point out that an award might be made on the "private attorney general" theory, citing Northcross v. Memphis Board of Educ., 412 U.S. 427, 93 S. Ct. 2201, 37 L. Ed. 2d 48 (1973) (per curiam), and Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 19 L. Ed. 2d 1263, 88 S. Ct. 964 (1968) (per curiam), or on the basis that defendant has shown bad faith or been obdurate or obstinate, citing Stolberg v. Members of Bd. of Trustees for State College of Connecticut, 474 F.2d 485 (2d Cir. 1973). Appellees ask us, should we reject the common fund doctrine relied on by the court below, to remand the case to the district court "for reconsideration and further findings"*fn6 on these or any ...

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