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California Court of Appeal Upholds Attorney’s Fee Award in Excessive Force Case

On June 23, 2011, the California Court of Appeal upheld an award of over $311,000 in attorney’s fees in a case involving excessive use of force by a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff.

In March 2006, after celebrating his birthday at a bar, Glen Jochimsen was detained by two Los Angeles County deputies and placed in a holding cell for several hours. He was never charged with any offense.

Without justification, one of the deputies, identified as Deputy Hernandez, entered Jochimsen’s cell and physically assaulted him. The assault ended only after another deputy arrived at the scene.

Jochimsen subsequently filed suit in state court, alleging a cause of action for excessive force against Hernandez pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and a cause of action against the county pursuant to Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). After a 5-day trial in September 2009, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Jochimsen on his excessive force claim against Hernandez, awarding him $35,000 in compensatory damages for pain and emotional distress.

In exchange for an agreement by Hernandez not to appeal the jury verdict, Jochimsen dropped his Monell claim against the county.

As a “prevailing party,” Jochimsen’s counsel filed a motion for attorney’s fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 in excess of $385,000. The county objected that the rates for Jochimsen’s counsel were too high, and that the proposed award was excessive in light of what the county perceived as Jochimsen’s “modest success” at trial. Addressing those objections, Jochimsen’s counsel proposed that the overall fees be reduced by 20 percent.
When the trial court ruled on the motion in February 2010, it reduced the requested fee award (which by then had increased to over $400,000) by 23.5 percent. Jochimsen’s counsel was awarded $311,218.26.

On appeal, the appellate court rejected the county’s arguments regarding the award of attorney’s fees, finding them to be without merit. In particular, the Court of Appeal rejected the county’s contention that the trial court had awarded excessive hourly rates inconsistent with prevailing market rates. It also rejected arguments that the trial court had abused its discretion by inappropriately double-counting certain factors in setting the award, and by failing to take into account the extent of Jochimsen’s recovery at trial. See: Jochimsen v. County of Los Angeles, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Case No. B223518 (unpublished), rehearing denied; 2011 WL 2485992.

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Related legal case

Jochimsen v. County of Los Angeles