Attorney Fees and Civil Rights – 42 U.S.C. § 1988: Why Care?

NO MONEY UNLESS YOU WIN—sounds familiar, right?

CashContingency fee arrangements are standard in personal injury (slip and fall, motor vehicle) and medical malpractice cases but most people don’t understand the fee arrangements in federal actions work the same way. Most law firms including our own will enter into a contingency fee arrangement in civil rights cases. As you recall, § 1983 cases are claims against state actors (police officers or other law enforcements) for a violation of a person’s civil rights; usually an illegal search and seizure – i.e. arrests, excessive force. § 1983 actions are normally be claims asserted against police departments and other agencies following allegations of police brutality or some other improper conduct.

Contingency fees don’t require the client to spend any money pursuing these claims. The law firm is responsible for everything, even the filing fee in federal court which is approximately $400.00. The cost of these actions, however, will far exceed simply the filing fee and in most cases average between $35,000.00 – $50,000.00. The good thing about a contingency fee is that the client is not responsible for any of these costs and only becomes responsible after a settlement or a verdict in their favor. Following a settlement or a verdict the client will reimburse the law firm for all of its costs and expenses along with the law firm’s professional fee for its representation. Contingency fees are based on the percentage of a settlement or verdict and normally range between 33.3% – 40%. The percentage of the attorney’s fee is based on the complexity of the case and the amount of time required to prosecute it on your behalf.

In addition to a contingency fee arrangement a federal court may also give your lawyers professional fees for pursuing a claim on your behalf. 42 USC § 1988 allows federal courts to award reasonable attorney’s fees for actions pursued under section 1983 (civil rights violations.) While attorney’s fees will not increase the amount of money that you receive following a settlement or a verdict, it can motivate a defendant (police department, some other agency, or municipality) to consider settling its case against you. If the case proceeded to trial, the liable defendant would not only be responsible for a financial award in your favor (compensatory money damages) but also your attorney’s fees which could be substantial.  This could easily double the amount a defendant would have to pay out. The amount of the attorney fees are based on:

  1. The time and labor required for the case
  2. The novelty and difficulty of the legal issue in the case
  3. The level of skill needed to successfully prosecute the claim
  4. The customary fee in similar cases
  5. The experience, reputation, and ability of your attorney
  6. Awards in other cases

Understanding attorneys’ fees in your case is very important to your civil rights case. Your attorney should explain every aspect of the contingency fee arrangement as well possible fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 that could affect the amount of those fees which could ultimately convince the liable party to settle the case.  Your fee agreement with your attorney should describe the contingency relationship with your attorneys and fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.  If it doesn’t I would seriously question that attorney’s understanding of federal civil rights claims.