(CN) – A Malibu lawyer who settled her wife’s civil rights claims against Los Angeles County can collect more than $140,000 in attorney’s fees, the 9th Circuit ruled, finding no evidence that the marriage bond necessarily rules out detached independence.
Rebecca Rickley is married to attorney Natasha Roit, and the two of them own a house in Malibu together. They complained to Los Angeles for over a decade that their neighbors had built illegal structures that contributed to frequent landslides. When the county ignored them, they sued the neighbors and won an injunction, but the neighbors continued to violate the building code. Again Rickley and Roit complained to the county, and again the county ignored them.
Finally, with Roit as her attorney, Rickley sued the county for violating her rights to free speech and equal protection. She claimed that the county had harassed her in retaliation for her many complaints.
Rickley and Riot eventually reached a settlement with the county, but it left the question of court costs up to the Central District of California. U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson denied Rickley’s motion to recover $145,930 in fees as the prevailing party. Of that sum, $120,000 would go to Roit.
The judge said Roit was not eligible to recover fees because her status as spouse to the plaintiff and co-owner of the property in question meant she was not an “‘independent emotionally detached counsel.”
The 9th Circuit disagreed in a unanimous reversal Friday, finding that the lower court had misunderstood precedent and, perhaps, the nature of independence as well.
Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the 9th Circuit “imposes a general rule requiring counsel to be independent and emotionally detached” to recover costs, the panel found. Nor is there “reason to presume that attorney-spouses are, as a general proposition, ‘unable to provide independent, dispassionate legal advice.'”
“Married couples have strong emotional bonds with one another,” Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the federal appeals panel in Pasadena. “The county is therefore certainly correct that there exists some risk that an attorney who represents her spouse in a civil rights action may allow emotion to cloud her independent legal judgment. But we see no reason to presume that attorney-spouses are, as a general proposition, ‘unable to provide independent, dispassionate legal advice.’ There is therefore no basis for a bright-line prohibition on awarding fees to successful civil rights plaintiffs who are represented by their attorney-spouses.”