Handcuffed 9-Year-Old Denied Attorneys’ Fees

     (CN) – An Alabama police officer who had to pay a dollar in damages to the 9-year-old he handcuffed should not be saddled with the girl’s legal fees, the 11th Circuit ruled.
     As a 9-year-old student at Holt Elementary School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in March 2003, Laquarius Gray had a disagreement with her gym teacher over her performance of jumping jacks.
     When the teacher told her to sit against the wall behind the class, Gray made a disrespectful and physically threatening comment to the teacher.
     Antonio Bostic, a deputy sheriff who worked as a school resource officer, intervened even though a female teacher offered to handle the situation. Bostic ordered Gray to exit the gym, took her into a lobby area, and handcuffed her with her hands behind her back for less than 60 seconds.
     “Simply put, Bostic applied the handcuffs to an arguably compliant nine-year-old child for purely punitive purposes,” according to the ruling
     Gray’s mother sued on the girl’s behalf in 2004, and the case has made several trips to the 11th Circuit since. In one of these decisions, the circuit court found that Bostic was not entitled to qualified immunity because his “conduct in handcuffing Gray, a compliant, nine-year-old girl for the sole purpose of punishing her was an obvious violation of Gray’s Fourth Amendment rights.”
     In 2007, a jury found Bostic guilty of treading on Gray’s civil rights, but awarded only $1 in nominal damages based on the lack of mental anguish Gray suffered over the incident.
     Though the court then granted Gray $70,000 in attorneys’ fees, the 11th Circuit remanded the decision because the judge made clear that he found the jury’s verdict “abundantly unsupported by the evidence.”
     The District Court recalculated attorneys’ fees for Gray at $39,900 in 2012, but a divided three-judge panel reversed again last week, citing an abuse of discretion.
     “Like the plaintiffs in Farrar [v. Hobby], Gray achieved very limited success in this case; she asked for a large amount of money and received a nominal award,” according to the majority opinion by U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen Jr., sitting by designation from Augusta, Ga.
     “True, she did not seek $17 million,” Bowen wrote. “But the difference remains substantial between the $25,000 that she sought and the nominal award she received. For the purposes of measuring the degree of success Gray obtained, the ‘substantial difference between the judgment recovered and the recovery sought suggests that the victory is in fact purely technical.'”
     Though the 1997 1st Circuit decision O’Connor v. Huard incentivizes civil rights attorneys to take cases that defend an important right, but may not yield a large damages award, the Atlanta-based panel declined to follow that lead.
     “The Huard court recognized the importance of providing an incentive to attorneys to represent civil rights litigants whose claims may not result in substantial monetary compensation as a factor warranting the grant of attorney’s fees,” Bowen wrote. “Providing an incentive for representing civil rights litigants is something that every attorney’s fee award accomplishes. Simply stated, such reasoning would justify an attorney’s fee award in every case. This logic flouts the Supreme Court’s recommendation that in nominal damages cases ‘the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all.'”
     Here, “it is clear that Gray commenced the litigation to redress private injury, and it does not serve a public purpose. … Gray failed to establish anything more than that she had been denied a protected right. Despite her numerous claims, Gray was unable to establish that she suffered actual injury,” the judge continued.
     Writing in dissent, Judge Charles Wilson said the intense litigation involved in this case makes it hard to believe Gray’s victory was an “obvious” conclusion.
     “Because it was an ‘obvious violation,’ says the majority opinion, Gray’s litigation could not possibly be significant, because she did not “change the law,'” Wilson wrote. “By this logic, any future decision by this court that denies qualified immunity to a government actor will be deemed insignificant, because every denial of qualified immunity stems from ‘obvious’ constitutional violations.”
     Wilson also said the District Court’s two decisions to grant Gray attorneys’ fees should be given special weight because “where the district court is ‘intimately familiar with the barrage of pleadings, memoranda, and documents filed,’ it is preferable to have that decision made ‘by the court which has been most intimately connected with [the] case.'”

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