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Ninth Circuit: Jury Finding of Excessive Force Entitles Prevailing Party to Award of Attorney’s Fees

A divided Ninth Circuit has affirmed a jury’s award of only nominal damages for a police officer’s use of excessive force, but reversed the district court’s decision to deny costs and attorney’s fees to the prevailing party.

In January 2005, after a night of drinking, Anthony Guy became involved in a fight outside a bar in San Diego. He was subdued by San Diego police officers who were stationed across the street, monitoring the area as bars closed for the night.

Guy subsequently filed suit for damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the officers had used excessive force in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The jury found that one of the police officers, David Maley, had indeed used excessive force and had injured Guy, but awarded Guy only nominal damages. The district court then denied Guy’s motion for costs and attorney’s fees.

On appeal, Guy argued that the jury’s nominal damage award could not be reconciled with its determination that Officer Maley had used excessive force and caused him injury.
Over the objections of a dissenting justice, the Ninth Circuit majority held that the jury’s special verdict questions (and answers) were sufficiently ambiguous that it was possible (and reasonable) to conclude that the jury believed that while some of Officer Maley’s actions constituted excessive force, others were justified; by the same token, the jury could have concluded that any injury sustained by Guy resulted from specific actions by Maley that were reasonable, not excessive. The dissent suggested that this was just “speculation” on the part of the majority.

As to the matter of attorney’s fees, the Ninth Circuit concluded that, notwithstanding the absence of compensatory damages, a fee award would serve the “tangible benefit” to the public of “encouraging the City of San Diego to ensure that all of its police officers are well trained to avoid the use of excessive force, even when they confront a person whose conduct has generated the need for police assistance.” It remanded the case back to the district court to determine the appropriate amount of costs and attorney’s fees. See: Guy v. San Diego, 608 F.3d 582 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Guy v. San Diego