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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Attorney fees

The issue of attorney fees has been in the forefront of late. Today’s case of note is not a special education case, but is one that is of interest in the special ed lawyer’s world, as it addresses a court’s decision to award negligible fees in light of the small monetary award achieved by the plaintiff. The case, MILLEA v. METRO NORTH RAILROAD COMPANY, decided by the 2nd Circuit on August 8, 2011, was brought pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which has an attorney fee provision similar to the IDEA fee provision. There are a few things of note in the decision. The district court reduced the fee award reasoning that the claim upon which the plaintiff prevailed “had no public policy significance.” The 2nd Cir. held that that was error reasoning that “[b]y enacting a fee-shifting provision for FMLA claims, Congress has already made the policy determination that FMLA claims serve an important public purpose disproportionate to their cash value. We cannot second-guess this legislative policy decision.”

        The Second Circuit found that “the district court impermissibly reduced its initial fee award based on an incorrect conclusion that Millea's victory was “de minimis.” Millea, 2010 WL 126186, at *6. The $612.50 award was not de minimis; to the contrary, the award was more than 100% of the damages Millea sought on that claim. It was not a derisory or contemptuous rejection by the jury. The district court conflated a small damages award with a de minimis victory.”

        The Second Circuit found that “calculating attorneys' fees as a proportion of damages runs directly contrary to the purpose of fee-shifting statutes: assuring that civil rights claims of modest cash value can attract competent counsel. The whole purpose of fee-shifting statutes is to generate attorneys' fees that are disproportionate to the plaintiff's recovery. Thus, the district court abused its discretion when it ignored the lodestar and calculated the attorneys' fees as a proportion of the damages awarded.”