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Justices Ax Enhanced Award for Attorney’s Fees

(CN) - A split Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned an enhanced award of $4.5 million in attorney's fees stemming from a successful class action suit against Georgia's foster care system.

Under federal fee-shifting statutes, judges can award enhanced attorneys' fees above the so-called "lodestar" amount, Justice Samuel Alito wrote. However, the court in the Georgia case did not provide "proper justification" for the large enhancement..

"This figure appears to have been essentially arbitrary," Alito wrote. "Unjustified enhancements that serve only to enrich attorneys are not consistent with the statute's aim."

"A prevailing party in certain civil rights actions may recover a 'reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs,'" Alito wrote. "Unfortunately, the statute does not explain what Congress meant by a 'reasonable' fee, and therefore the task of identifying an appropriate methodology for determining a 'reasonable' fee was left for the courts."

The underlying case stems from a lawsuit filed on behalf of 3,000 children who sued Georgia, claiming deficiencies in the foster care system. They requested more than $14 million in attorney's fees.

Half was based on the calculation of the lodestar - about 30,000 hours multiplied by the hourly rates of $200 to $495 for attorneys and $75 to $150 for non-attorneys.

They also sought a fee enhancement for superior work, but the state complained that the requested hourly rates were too high.

The district court awarded fees of $10.5 million, finding that the hourly rates were fair, but that some of the billing sheets were vague and that many of the billing hours were excessive.

The court cut the non-travel hours by 15 percent and halved the hourly rate for travel hours, resulting in a lodestar calculation of $6 million.

The court then enhanced the award by 75 percent, finding that the lodestar calculation did not take into account "the fact that the class counsel were required to advance case expenses of $1.7 million over a three-year period.

The 11th Circuit affirmed, finding that the court did not abuse its discretion by failing to make a proper reduction in the number of hours.

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