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Third Circuit Reverses $642,398.57 Attorney Fee Award for RFRA Claim by Immigration Prisoner

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an immigration detainee’s $642,398.57 attorney fee award, finding that “the District Court’s degree of success inquiry under § 1988 was based on an impermissible reconstruction of the jury verdict.”

Hawa Abdi Jama, a Somalian immigrant and a Muslim, was detained as an illegal immigrant at an Elizabeth, New Jersey detention center operated by Esmor Correctional Services, Inc. (Esmor) for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

In 1997, Jama and 19 other detainees sued Esmor, INS and numerous individual defendants over abusive treatment and deplorable conditions at the facility. All of the plaintiffs except Jama settled the class-action suit for $2.5 million. [See: PLN, Sept. 2006, p.26; Sept. 1995, p.17].

In 2007, a jury trial was held on Jama’s claims. The jury ruled in her favor on her claim that the defendants substantially burdened her ability to practice her religion, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq. The jury also ruled in her favor on a pendent state law claim that Esmor and other defendants had negligently hired, trained, supervised and/or retained guards at the privately-run facility. The jury awarded only nominal damages of $1 on the RFRA claim and compensatory damages of $100,000 on the state law claim. [See: PLN, Sept. 2008, p.36].

The district court granted Jama’s motion for an award of attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. It found that “based on its assessment of the evidence, ‘between 33% and 50% of the jury’s negligence claims award of $100,000 was designed as compensation for Jama’s RFRA-related injuries.’... The Court calculated a lodestar of $642,398.57 based entirely on counsel’s work on the RFRA claim, and awarded the entire amount against Esmor and Lima, the two defendants found liable under RFRA.” Jama v. Esmor Corr. Services, Inc., 549 F.Supp.2d 602 (D. N.J. 2008).

The Third Circuit reversed on appeal, concluding that “the District Court erred in attributing a portion of Jama’s tort award to her RFRA claim.” Rather, “the District Court was required to presume that the jury determined that no actual injury was sustained as a result of the RFRA violation, and could not conclude that any portion of the $100,000 in compensatory damages was awarded to compensate for the RFRA violation.”

The Court of Appeals rejected the defendants’ contention that “under Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992), no fee may be awarded as a matter of law because Jama was only awarded nominal damages on her fee-eligible RFRA claim.” The Court found that “Farrar is plainly distinguishable because Jama received a substantial award on the litigation as a whole, whereas the plaintiffs in Farrar received only a nominal award of $1 in total.”

Although the appellate court disagreed that Farrar conclusively prohibits the award of a fee on Jama’s RFRA claim, it joined five other Circuits in holding Farrar requires “that a district court determining the degree of a plaintiff’s success should consider not only the difference between the relief sought and achieved, but also the significance of the legal issue decided and whether the litigation served a public purpose.”

The Third Circuit then analyzed “whether Jama’s success on her state law claim may independently inform the degree of her success under § 1988.” Yet it was surprised to find that the impact of success on state claims as related to the award of fees under § 1988 had not been squarely addressed by that Circuit, and was sparsely litigated elsewhere.

The appellate court rejected the defendants’ argument “that pendent state law claims may only be considered in the success inquiry if the legal standards and operative facts for the state and federal fee-eligible claims are identical.” Even so, “the state and federal claims must certainly bear some relation in order for the state claim to be considered under § 1988.” The standard in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983), “should guide a district court’s consideration of pendent state claims in a litigation where a plaintiff has prevailed on a fee-eligible federal claim,” the Third Circuit held.

The attorney fee award was vacated and the case remanded for reconsideration by the district court. Following remand, Esmor and Lima agreed to settle the issue of Jama’s attorney’s fees and costs for an undisclosed amount. See: Jama v. Esmor Corr. Services, Inc., 577 F.3d 169 (3d Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Jama v. Esmor Corr. Services, Inc.