City of Riverside v. Rivera

PETITIONER: City of Riverside
LOCATION: Southhampton County Circuit Court

DOCKET NO.: 85-224
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 477 US 561 (1986)
ARGUED: Mar 31, 1986
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1986

Gerald P. Lopez - Argued the cause for the respondents
Jonathan Kotler - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1975, eight Chicano individuals were attending a party that was broken up by the Riverside police using tear gas and physical force without a warrant. Subsequently, the eight individuals filed suit in Federal District Court against the city and various police officers under several federal Civil Rights Acts, alleging violations of their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The jury found in the individuals' favor and awarded $33,350 in compensatory and punitive damages. The individuals also sought attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976 in the amount of $245,456.25, based on 1,946.75 hours expended by their two attorneys at $125 per hour and 84.5 hours expended by law clerks at $25 per hour. Finding both the hours and rates reasonable, the District Court awarded the requested amount, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The appellate court found that the fee award was not excessive merely because it exceeded the amount of damages awarded by the jury.


Is an award of attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976 "unreasonable" within the meaning of the statute if it exceeds the amount of damages recovered by the plaintiff in the underlying civil rights action?

Media for City of Riverside v. Rivera

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 31, 1986 in City of Riverside v. Rivera

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Kotler, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Jonathan Kotler:

Thank you.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case raises an issue involving the interpretation of the language chosen by Congress when it enacted Section 1988 of Title 42 which provides that a trial court may award a reasonable attorney's fee to a prevailing party in certain civil rights actions.

Specifically, this case raises the question of whether an award of attorney's fees seven times the amount received by the plaintiffs in a private action resulting only in monetary relief can possibly be deemed reasonable under Section 1988.

More broadly, this case also raises the question of whether Section 1988 mandates some relationship between the results obtained by a prevailing party in a civil rights action and the fees which a trial judge may award thereafter.

As such, it caused them to question the efficacy of the continued use of the lodestar approach to fee calculations in cases which are essentially private court actions.

It is the position of the Petitioners that the lodestar approach in a case such as this, rather than producing a fee which is presumptively reasonable, can often, as here, produce a fee which is unreasonable on its face.

Warren E. Burger:

The calculation I made, counsel... Their request was for $495,708, is that right, their original request?

Jonathan Kotler:

That took in the number of hours that doubled, the multiplier of two, yes.

Warren E. Burger:

And, the court allowed them $245,000.

Jonathan Kotler:


All their hours at a rate of $125 an hour.

Harry A. Blackmun:

And, what was your offer of settlement?

Jonathan Kotler:

Our last offer of settlement was $25,000.

Harry A. Blackmun:


Jonathan Kotler:

Yes, Your Honor.

There has been a great amount in the record disputing that back and forth.

The last offer that was made in front of a trial judge was $10,000.

The last offer that was made to one of the co-counsel was $25,000.

It is likewise Petitioners' belief that a fee calculated on the same basis as fees for similar litigation in a given community not only provides a more accurate reflection of the true value of legal services rendered in a private 1983 case, but, moreover, would produce a fee more consistent with the goals of Congress when Congress enacted 1988, which is, of course, a fee that is reasonable.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Kotler, you referred to a private 1983 case.

Are there public 1983 cases that are different from this?

Jonathan Kotler:

I think there are.

I think if the benefit that is yielded as a result of an action benefits more than the individual plaintiffs results in policy changes, results in--

William H. Rehnquist:

You are talking about a case that results simply in an award of a damage judgment to a particular individual?

Jonathan Kotler:

--I would characterize that as a private 1988 case.

Factually, this case began following an altercation between the Respondents and various members of the Riverside City Police of Riverside, California, in August of 1975.

Thereafter, the Respondents filed an action in the United States District Court for the Central District of California against 32 defendants, including the City of Riverside and its chief of police.

Their action included civil rights claims as well as a mixed bag of pendent state claims, including claims for assault and battery, claims for property damage, infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution, defamation, false arrest and false imprisonment, and simple negligence.