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Award of Nominal Damages Negates Attorney Fee Awards

The Eleventh Circuit Court of appeals held that, under the circumstances before it, the award of attorney fees is improper to a party awarded only a nominal damage award.

This was the fifth time this case was before the court.  At issue was the March 7, 2003, handcuffing of nine year old Laquarius Gray by Tuscaloosa County, Alabama Sheriff Deputy Antonio Bostic at Holt Elementary School.

Bostic handcuffed Gray for “less than 60 seconds” for “purely punitive purposes” after she was disrespectful and physically threatened a gym instructor.  The district court entered judgment as a matter of law for Gray on her claim of illegal seizure after the second appeal, and a jury granted her nominal damages.

That judgment was affirmed on appeal, and the district court granted $70,000 in attorney fees to Gray once the appeal was resolved.  Bostic appealed, and the Eleventh Circuit vacated the order for reconsideration because only nominal damages were awarded.

On remand, the district court awarded $39,900 in attorney fees.  On Bostic’s new appeal, the Eleventh Circuit, once again cited precedent that holds, “when a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all.”

In looking at the degree of success, the nominal award was far removed from the $25,000 sought by Gray.  While Gray prevailed to show her civil rights were violated, that victory did not alter the landscape of civil rights law in the public schools.

So, it had little legal significance.  It also served a private, not a public purpose.  As such, an award of attorney fees was improper.  The Eleventh Circuit noted the district court improperly used the award of attorney fees as a deterrent.   The district court’s order was reversed and remanded to strike the attorney fees. See:  Gray v. Bostic, No. 12-11819 (11th Cir. 2013).

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Related legal case

Gray v. Bostic