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decided: August 28, 1985.



Author: Rehnquist

[ 473 U.S. Page 1315]


Applicants, the city of Riverside and five of its current or former police officers, ask that I stay pending disposition of their petition for certiorari the mandate of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit requiring applicants to pay respondents $245,456.25 in attorney's fees. The attorney's fees were awarded by the District Court pursuant to 42 U. S. C. § 1988, following a trial in which respondents recovered from applicants a total of $33,350 in damages. This case seems to me to present a significant question involving the construction of § 1988: should a court, in determining the amount of "a reasonable attorney's fee" under the statute, consider the amount of monetary damages recovered in

[ 473 U.S. Page 1316]

     the underlying action? On August 15, 1985, I temporarily stayed the Ninth Circuit's mandate in order to permit further study of the stay application, the response thereto, and the petition for certiorari. Having fully considered the parties' submissions, I now grant the requested stay.

 On August 1, 1975, respondents were attending a large private party in the Latino section of Riverside when numerous police officers entered, forcibly broke up the party, and arrested many of the guests, including four of the respondents. The four respondents who were arrested were later prosecuted, but the charges were dismissed for lack of probable cause. Respondents, in turn, filed suit against the city of Riverside, its Chief of Police, and 30 police officers, alleging violations of the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, violations of 42 U. S. C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985(3), and 1986, and pendent state claims for conspiracy, emotional distress, assault and battery, bodily injury, property damage, breaking and entering a residence, malicious prosecution, defamation, false arrest and imprisonment, and negligence. Respondents sought compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive and declaratory relief, and attorney's fees.

Prior to trial, respondents dropped their requests for injunctive and declaratory relief, along with their original allegation that the police officers had acted with discriminatory intent. Also prior to trial, 17 of the individual defendants were dismissed on motions for summary judgment. After a 9-day trial, the jury returned a verdict exonerating another 9 of the individual defendants from liability, and awarding $33,350 to respondents based on 11 violations of § 1983, 4 instances of false arrest and imprisonment, and 22 instances of common negligence. Respondents did not prevail on any of their remaining theories of liability, no restraining orders or injunctions were ever issued against any of the defendants, and the city of Riverside was not compelled to, and did not, change any of its practices or policies as a result of the suit.

[ 473 U.S. Page 1317]

     Respondents filed a post-trial motion for attorney's fees pursuant to § 1988. Following the submission of affidavits documenting the hours spent on the case by counsel for respondents, the District Court awarded respondents $245,456.25 in attorney's fees. Applicants appealed the award, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Rivera v. City of Riverside, 679 F.2d 795 (1982). We granted certiorari, vacated the judgment, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of our then recent decision in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). City of Riverside v. Rivera, 461 U.S. 952 (1983). On remand, and after a brief hearing, the District Court again awarded respondents $245,456.25 in attorney's fees, and the Court of Appeals again affirmed, this time in an unpublished opinion. The Court of Appeals also denied applicants' motion for a stay pending the disposition by this Court of a petition for certiorari.

At each stage of the proceedings in this case, applicants have challenged the attorney's fee award on the ground that it is disproportionately large in comparison to the amount of the monetary judgment recovered. In the District Court, in opposition to respondents' initial request for nearly $500,000 in attorney's fees, applicants cited Scott v. Bradley, 455 F.Supp. 672 (ED Va. 1978), for the contention that "there is no reason to provide an economic windfall to Plaintiffs' counsel by awarding them sixteen times the award received by Plaintiffs in the instant action." App. to Pet. for Cert. 10-21. The opinion of the Court of Appeals on the first appeal states that "[appellants] urge this court to reduce the amount awarded . . . because the attorney's fees were disproportionately larger than the jury verdict." Rivera v. City of Riverside, 679 F.2d, at 797. The Court of Appeals rejected the disproportionality argument, however, holding that "[the] extent to which a plaintiff has 'prevailed' is not necessarily reflected in the amount of the jury verdict." Id., at 798. Applicants in their petition for certiorari to this Court have

[ 473 U.S. Page 1318]

     framed the more general question of "the proper standards within which a district court may exercise its discretion in awarding attorney's fees to prevailing parties under § 1988," but although such a formulation is not a model of specificity, it does "fairly subsume," inter alia, the disproportionality issue.

There is also presently pending before this Court a petition for certiorari in the case of City of McKeesport v. Cunningham, No. 84-1793, which raises the same issue as to disproportionality between the amount of a money judgment recovered and the size of the attorney's fee award under § 1988. In that case the District Court entered judgment for the plaintiff in the amount of $17,000 as damages for the taking of property without due process of law, and plaintiff then moved for an award of some $35,000 in attorney's fees and costs based on time spent on the case. The District Court, after review of the relevant materials, reduced the amount of the requested award because, among other things, the plaintiff's lawsuit created no new law and was unlikely to benefit anyone but the plaintiff. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the District Court was wrong in applying what the Court of Appeals characterized as a ...

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