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$1.3 Million+ Award of Attorney's Fees and Costs Approved in New York Unlawful Confinement Case that Netted Only $1 in Damages

by Lonnie Burton

On June 17, 2016, Judge Jed A. Raskoff, sitting in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, issued an order approving over $1.3 million in costs and attorney's fees in a long-running case that resulted in New York's original sexually violent predator civil commitment rules being declared unconstitutional. The fee award was significant because the jury in the underlying case, while finding in favor of the plaintiffs, awarded only $1 in actual damages.

In 2005, then-New York Governor George Pataki issued an executive order requiring civil confinement in a state psychiatric hospital of prisoners, who, after serving their sentences, were deemed to be sexually violent predators. The key part of that initiative was that, contrary to New York Correction Law which required a judicial finding prior to involuntary commitment, a person could be committed under the governor's plan on the word of two state-employed psychiatrists.

Six plaintiffs affected by the order brought suit against Gov. Pataki under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, among other things.

After many of the claims were dismissed on summary judgment and other procedural moves, the case proceeded to trial. A jury found one state employee liable and awarded $1 to each plaintiff. More significantly, though, the governor's executive action was declared unconstitutional as a result of the lawsuit.

Plaintiff's lawyers filed for an award of costs and attorney's fees, but the court stayed that motion pending resolution of the state's appeal of the verdict. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, paving the way for the district court to rule on the request for attorney's fees.

The state argued the $1 verdicts mitigated against a finding that plaintiffs were the "prevailing party," and thus no costs and attorney's fees were proper. "Court's often do not award attorney's fees to plaintiffs who seek substantial compensatory damages but recover only nominal damages," the court wrote.

"The most critical factor in determining the reasonableness of a fee award is the degree of success obtained," the court said, citing Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992). Noting that "success does not always take a monetary form," the court focused on to what degree plaintiff's case resulted in "groundbreaking conclusions of law."

The court concluded that this was one of those rare cases in which an award of attorney's fees is appropriate, even though plaintiffs only won nominal monetary damages. Because the case established "for the first time" that the sexually violent predator initiative "was a flagrant, even monstrous, denial of plaintiffs' constitutional rights," and because the new rule of liability “established in this case serves a significant public purpose,”the outcome was "sufficiently novel to support an award of fees," the court held.

In total, the court found that the 11 lawyers, paralegals, and law students who served on the case at one point or another were entitled to compensation for the roughly 7,000 total hours spent on the case. At hourly rates ranging from $100 to $600 an hour, the court found that a total fee of $3,607,174 was warranted, but then reduced the Lodestar amount by 65%, resulting in a final fee award of $1,262,511. The court finally added another $61,626 in costs, for a total award of $1,324.134. See: Bailey, Brooks, Massei, Torres as the administratrix of the Estate of Burgos Jr., Macchio, and Warren v. Pataki, Nos. 08-cv-8573, 08-cv4665, 08-cv-8923, 08-cv-8924, 08-cv-8925, and 08-cv-9609 (JSR), respectively, (S.D. N.Y. 2017).

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