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California Valdivia Attorneys Awarded $6.5 Million For 12 Years Work

by John E. Dannenberg

The attorneys who labored twelve years to overturn the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's unconstitutional practice of snatching parolees off the streets and incarcerating them without due process of law [i.e., bed vacancy-driven recidivism] (see: PLN, January, 2003, p.16; April, 2004, p.24; March, 2005, p.1) were, at the end of the day, on September 17, 2004, awarded $6.5 million in fees and costs for the excellent results they achieved.

The court's (U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.)) justification of reasonable attorney fees was both glowing and withering. The court noted that the attorneys took plaintiff Valdivia's original complaint to class action status and achieved a statewide Stipulated Order for Permanent Injunctive Relief in December 2003 (finalized in March 2004). In evaluating the attorneys fee requests for 24,000 hours in labor plus $617,784 in expenses, the courts eventual hourly compensation worked out to be $217 for the 30,000 hours they had actually documented. Payment was ordered by November 15, 2004, with interest per 28 U.S.C. 5 1961 from March 9, 2004.

The court went on to note that the attorneys had developed new law (post Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471 (1972) and Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973), clarifying parole violator's rights; had retained five expert witnesses; had videotaped 137 parole revocation hearings; had analyzed hundreds of thousands of documents from many of the 140,000 class members; and had successfully defended against numerous defense motions to dismiss or other frustrate the prisoners' due process rights.

The wrongs corrected by counsels tireless efforts included the lack of probable cause hearings at the time of arrest, lack of adequate notice of charges and rights, use of forms and documents that many parolees could not read or understand and which improperly state the applicable legal standards, failure to provide counsel to parolees when due process rights required appointment of counsel, undue restrictions on counsels access to information and compensable time where counsel was appointed, failure to identify and assist parolees with mental illness and other functional impairments, failure to allow parolees to present witnesses and to confront witnesses against them, failure to provide a prompt final revocation hearing, and operation of an administrative appeal system that was fundamentally unfair.

Chief Judge Emeritus Lawrence K. Karlton's conclusion was understated: In light of the lengthy, complex and hard-fought nature of this litigation, the number of hours claimed by Plaintiff's Lead Counsel is reasonable. The time expended is also justified by the excellent results achieved.

As to the hourly rate, the court weighed both the Prison Litigation Reform Act fee cap ($169.50/hr) versus the 42 U.S.C. § 1988 standard for prevailing local rates. The Settlement represents a compromise respecting the high degree of skill and experience of plaintiffs counsel.

The winning Lead Counsel -- to whom all California prisoners owe a deep debt of gratitude include San Francisco firms Rosen, Bien & Asaro, LLP (Michael Bien, Holly Baldwin, Ernest Galvan), Bingham, McCutchen LLP (Karen Kennard, Kristen Palumbo) and the venerable San Quentin Prison Law Office (Donald Specter, Director). See: Valdivia v. Schwarzenegger, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.) No. S-94-0671 LKK/GGH.

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Related legal case

Valdivia v. Schwarzenegger