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Alabama Federal Court Awards $538,178 in Attorney Fees and Expenses for Women Prison Conditions Litigation

Alabama Federal Court Awards $538,178 in Attorney Fees and Expenses for Women Prison Conditions Litigation

On August 31, 2007, an Alabama federal court awarded $484,406.35 in attorney fees and $53,771.79 in expenses to prisoners who successfully challenged conditions of confinement in Alabama state prisons for women.

The plaintiffs in this class-action 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights lawsuit alleged they were deprived of their basic human needs of adequate living space, ventilation, personal safety, security, medical care and mental health services at three Alabama women’s facilities. The suit led to two four-year court-approved settlement agreements [See: PLN, July 2005, p.11].

The plaintiffs were required to engage in post-judgment enforcement actions. They then filed two motions seeking $803,596.80 in attorney fees and $78,955.58 in expenses for litigating the lawsuit, the enforcement actions and the motions for attorney fees. The defendants hotly contested the fee motions.

The district court first determined the plaintiffs were a “prevailing party” and therefore entitled to attorney fees because there had been a court-ordered material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties. It also disagreed with defendants’ contention that the plaintiffs’ attorneys had “overstaffed” in mediating the settlement of this complex lawsuit.

The court held that the requested attorney fees and expenses should be “proportionally related” to the relief ordered. Plaintiffs did not receive all of the relief they had requested, therefore they should receive attorney fees and expenses in proportion to the percentage of relief they were awarded. This principle also held true for a preliminary injunction that was only partially granted. However, attorney fees could be awarded on issues for which a preliminary injunction was not granted but a permanent injunction was eventually granted.

Applying proportionality to the requested attorney fees, the court awarded 65.35% of the billable hours for the lawsuit, 50% for work related to the preliminary injunction and 65.35% for work relating to the motions for attorney fees. It awarded no compensation for work related to the plaintiffs’ unsuccessful challenge to the second remedial plan and for an unsuccessful motion to compel discovery.

The district court also disallowed time spent on out-of-state private prison company defendants that were eventually dropped from the suit. However, it allowed fees for work done on out-of-state defendants that led to evidence used in the action against the state (such as the procurement of medical records from a private out-of-state prison medical services provider).

The court further disallowed some of the billings by amounts ranging from 15% to 50% for lack of clarity in the fee request for attorneys and paralegals, and removed a few contested hours as unnecessary or inadvertently included when they should have been billed to other clients.

The court rejected the defendants’ contention that attorney fees for visiting and interviewing non-testifying experts should be disallowed when it was clear that the experts did not testify because the case was settled.

The court-established PLRA cap on hourly attorney fees in the Montgomery, Alabama area was $169.50. There was also a cap for the award of fees for paralegals, who were generally compensated at lower rates of $75.00 to $85.00 per hour. Noting a circuit conflict on the issue, the district court held that the rate approved by the Judicial Council for the payment of court-appointed counsel under 18 U.S.C. § 3006A was the measure that should be used, not the lesser rate actually paid to court-appointed counsel due to budgetary constraints.

The court held that neither the PLRA nor the consent decree precluded the award of attorney fees for post-judgment monitoring. However, the PLRA limited such fees to those directly and reasonably incurred in enforcing the court-ordered decree. That included an out-of-court settlement of a contempt motion, so long as the settlement resulted in some enforcement of the court-ordered decree. In this case, the court found that the requested billable hours for the post-judgment enforcement work should be reduced by 50% because it was only moderately successful.

Having made all of the above-referenced adjustments, the court awarded the plaintiffs a total of $484,406.35 in attorney fees and $53,771.79 in expenses. The plaintiffs were represented by George F. Shultz, Jr., Jacksonville, FL; John A. Russell, III, Aliceville, AL; Lisa Kung, Stephen B. Bright and Tamara S. Caldas, Southern Center for Human Rights, Atlanta, GA; Marion D. Chartoff, Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, AL; and Stephen F. Hanlon, Washington, D.C. See: Laube v. Allen, 506 F.Supp.2d 969 (M.D. Ala. 2007).

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Related legal case

Laube v. Allen