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$156,289 in Attorney Fees Awarded for Enforcing California Jail Prisoners’ Federal Consent Decrees

$156,289 in Attorney Fees Awarded for Enforcing California Jail Prisoners’ Federal Consent Decrees

by John E. Dannenberg

On , August 22, 2007, the U.S. District Court (N.D. Cal.) approved $156,289 in attorney fees and costs for the enforcement of two consent decrees related to law libraries and disciplinary procedures at the Santa Clara County (San Jose, California) jail. The attorneys had sought contempt proceedings against County Sheriff James Geary for eliminating law libraries and failing to follow disciplinary procedures agreed to decades earlier. While the County admitted error in not following the earlier decrees, it objected to the prisoners’ attorney fees in terms of the billing rate, the hours billed, and authorization under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) for post-decree monitoring.

In 1973, Santa Clara County entered into an Access to Courts consent decree requiring the jail to install and maintain prisoner law libraries. In 1977 it agreed to a Disciplinary Procedures Decree that required, among other things, written statements of decisions in certain disciplinary cases. However, in May 2001, a prisoner informed the law firm that had represented the plaintiffs in the earlier case that law libraries at the jail had been removed and disciplinary procedures were not being followed. The firm began monitoring the County’s compliance with the decrees for two years, and, upon observing violations, moved for contempt against Sheriff Geary and the County in August 2004.

The district court issued an Order to Show Cause on the merits and on attorney fees. The County responded in November 2004 by moving to terminate the consent decrees under provisions of the PLRA, which the court granted in November 2005. While the court agreed to terminate the decrees, it first required an agreement to remediate the library and disciplinary procedure issues. At that time, the district court ruled that the prisoners’ attorneys could move for “reasonable attorney fees and costs,” albeit noting their limited success. The attorneys submitted bills for $383,876 plus costs of $18,076, to which the County objected.

The court first held that the PLRA’s fee cap (150% of established local rates) applied pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)(1), citing Webb v. Ada County, 285 F.3d 829 (9th Cir. 2002). Webb also approved post-suit enforcement fees and “fees on fees” to collect the former, which the court followed in this case. The court next fixed the local base rate for attorney fees at $113 per hour, the 2002 approved rate. The plaintiffs’ request to use current rates was denied. The court approved fees for the attorneys’ monitoring work, contempt motion, opposition to the County’s motion to terminate the decrees, additional general litigation work and litigation to collect fees.

Based upon the PLRA-capped rate of $170 per hour (150% of $113) and the approved billing hours, the court arrived at a total fee award of $138,213.83 plus $18,076.03 in costs. The current status of the law libraries and disciplinary procedures at the jail was not reported. The prisoners were represented by San Jose attorneys Robert Baines, James McManis, James Zahradka, Kyra Kazantis and Michael Reedy. See: Batchelder v. Geary, 2007 WL 2427989.

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Related legal case

Batchelder v. Geary