Nice Try, but Attorneys’ Fees Are for Counsel Only

     (CN) – A man who held Chicago police liable for excessive force cannot keep 60 percent of the amount meant for his attorneys, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     In a February 2006 complaint against Chicago and several officers, Morad Elusta claimed that police used excessive force while searching his home and falsely arrested him. The city offered to settle Elusta’s claims for $100,000, but Elusta refused the offer because he was unwilling to award his attorneys, David Cerda and John De Leon, a 40 percent share.
     Eventually, Elusta hired new counsel – Zane Smith and Shelia Genson – who took the case to trial before a jury that awarded him $40,000.
     The court later awarded Smith and Genson $83,000 in fees and ruled that Elusta owed his former lawyers, Cerda and De Leon, $15,000 for their services.
     Elusta then moved to have Chicago pay Cerda and De Leon, but give him 60 percent of the amount. He also said Smith and Genson should turn over 60 percent of their fee award to him.
     A federal judge denied Elusta’s motion, and the 7th Circuit affirmed last week, poking fun at Elusta’s interpretation of his agreement with his second set of lawyers.
     “Elusta argues that the phrase ‘the attorney’s fees’ does not clearly cover all of the attorney’s fees,” Judge Diane Wood wrote for a three-member panel.
     In a side note, Wood likened the argument to a quotation from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” where Humpty Dumpty says, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
     Humpty Dumptyism would not, however, work out for Elusta.
     “The contract cannot bear Elusta’s interpretation,” Wood wrote. “What it does, in effect, is to say that counsel is entitled to receive 40 percent of any damages (the contingent fee); if fees are awarded to Elusta pursuant to §1988, the attorneys receive all of that award. The language that the attorneys ‘will divide the attorney’s fees recovered’ unambiguously covers all of the attorney’s fees recovered.”
     Elusta also cannot attach 60 percent of the $15,000 he owes the other attorneys.
     “We agree with the district court that this argument ‘defies logic,'” Wood wrote. “The court awarded $15,000 to Cerda and De Leon precisely because it concluded that it would be unjust for Elusta to keep that money after he had received the benefits of Cerda and De Leon’s services. Elusta is thus, by definition, not entitled to keep any of it.”

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