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Court OK’s Reduced Fees in Strip-Search Litigation

(CN) - The 2nd Circuit upheld a reduced attorney fee award of $461,000 to former detainees who claimed they were unconstitutionally strip-searched at the Schenectady County Jail. When the county settled the class action for $2.5 million, the plaintiffs sought 26 percent of that amount, or $650,000, in attorney fees.

The class members challenged the district court's decision to grant attorney fees on an hourly rate, rather than as a percentage of the settlement.

They said their attorneys spent more than 1,000 hours working on the case, which accused the county of performing strip searches on pre-trial detainees, regardless of their alleged crimes.

The county insisted that its detainees were merely "required to change into jail uniforms in the presence of a corrections officer of the same sex," and that the jail had no formal strip-searching policy.

Nonetheless, it agreed to pay the class members $2.5 million and to alter some of its practices.

The class members said they were entitled to $650,000 in attorney fees, based on a percentage of the settlement.

U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe instead calculated fees using a modified lodestar method, basing the fees on the attorneys' normal hourly rates. He awarded class members about $461,000 -- or 13 percent of the settlement -- which included about $343,000 in attorney fees, $10,000 in costs and $107,000 in administrative expenses.

The Manhattan-based federal appeals court saw no abuse of discretion in Sharpe's decision to use the modified lodestar formula instead of a percentage approach.

"Civil rights cases may or may not raise the same danger of 'routine overcompensation' for risk that has troubled this court in the context of 'mega-fund' class actions," Judge Debra Ann Livingston wrote, "but it is because of the case-specific nature of the fee award inquiry that we have been loath to disturb the determinations of district courts in this area."

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