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Ninth Circuit: $260K Fee Award Proper Where Damages Were $2500

April 26, 2022 | Posted in : Contingency Fees / POF, Expenses / Costs, Fee Award, Fee Award Factors, Fee Cap / Fee Limits, Fee Doctrine / Fee Theory, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Statute, Fees more than Damages, Hourly Billing, Prevailing Party Issues

A recent Metropolitan News story, “$260,000 Fee Award Proper Though Damages Were $2,500” reports that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed an attorney fee award of nearly $260,000 in a case in which a prison inmate was awarded $2,500 based on ill-effects from a chemical grenade having accidentally been discharged, with fumes seeping into the area of the cells.  District Court Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. of the Northern District of California made the award under California’s private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5, ruling that the statutory criteria were met, including a benefit to the public that overshadows the personal benefit to the prisoner, Daniel Manriquez.

The incident underlying Manriquez’s suit occurred on June 4, 2015.  According to allegations of the operative complaint, two employees at Pelican Bay State Prison, defendants Justin Vangilder and Juan Vasquez, while inside a control booth, were “horse playing” with a “military-grade” grenade which is “designed to quickly release oleoresin capsicum (‘OC’) into the air.”  One of them dropped the grenade, it went off, and the employees “opened the windows to the control booth, allowing a fog of OC to quickly fill the surrounding space.”

The inmate prevailed at trial and his lawyers sought an award of a fee in the amount of $467,425, arguing that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had “insisted on using this case as a ‘test case’ for prisoners who have been indirectly exposed to oleoresin capsicum,” had rejected reasonable settlement offers, and “forced Plaintiff to heavily litigate this case for going on three years now.”  Gilliam awarded $259,237.50.

 A three-judge panel—composed of Judge M. Margaret McKeown and Senior Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Sidney Thomas—upheld the award, saying that there was, as Gilliam found, a “significant benefit” conferred on the general public. Their memorandum opinion declares: “To be sure, the primary effect of Manriquez’s $2,500 judgment is arguably an enforcement of his personal interests against two correctional officers for an isolated incident, as there was no injunction or statewide policy changes.  But we hold that the district court did not clearly err* in its determination that Manriquez’s verdict has “larger implications” beyond his individual case. The district court explicitly took into consideration the fact that indirect exposure to chemical agents is not uncommon among inmates and that Defendants’ own witnesses testified at trial about the frequency with which chemical agents are used in prison facilities.  Moreover, the district court highlighted that there are approximately 95.000 men and women incarcerated in California, including approximately 1.900 inmates in Pelican Bay, where Manriquez was in custody.”

The Ninth Circuit judges also agreed with Gilliam that the public benefit transcends Manriquez’s personal interests, saying: “In the end, Manriquez was awarded a total of $2,500 while his counsel requested a total of $467,425 in attorneys’ fees for over 1,100 hours of work.  Had counsel not agreed to represent Manriquez on contingency, the value of the recovery for Manriquez’s pain and panic would not have justified the costs in litigating this case.  For the same reason—comparing the modest sum of the total damages to the attorneys’ fee requested—we agree with the district court that the interests of justice require the fees to not be paid out of Plaintiffs’ recovery.”

The defendants argued that even though Gilliam awarded less in fees than was sought, the amount is 84 times that allowed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”).  The PLRA caps attorney fees 150 percent of any monetary which would mean a maximum award of $3,750.

The panel responded: “[T]he PLRA cannot be used as a basis to limit the attorneys’ fees granted under California Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5.  In this case. Manriquez prevailed on both his state law negligence claim as well as his Eighth Amendment claim against Defendants.  The state law claim thus served as an independent basis for awarding attorneys’ fees, the amount of which is not governed or limited by the PLRA….Moreover, the district court is not required to apportion the work between Manriquez’s Eighth Amendment claim and his negligence claim because his claims are intertwined and based on the same common core of facts.”