Reduced Award of Legal Fees Deemed Unfair

     (CN) – Lawyers who toppled an Ohio anti-corruption law need not make do with a paltry award of fees because of “antagonism” from the judge who handled their case, the 6th Circuit ruled.
     The Chandra Law Firm acted as lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the case – a group of physicians and Medicaid providers challenging an Ohio law that blocked them from supporting various candidates running for Ohio attorney general and Cuyahoga county prosecutor in the 2010 election.
     Though a federal judge in Cleveland twice ruled against the plaintiffs, led by Arthur Lavin, the 6th Circuit eventually found the 30-year-old law clearly unconstitutional.
     In a motion for attorneys’ fees, the plaintiffs sought to divide a total of more than $665,000 between Chandra Law and the other firms that worked on the case.
     A federal magistrate recommended reducing the request by 30 percent, but U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent went much further.
     The 6th Circuit noted Thursday that Nugent “awarded only $128,908.74 in fees and $6,315.00 in costs – an amount seventy percent less than the magistrate judge’s recommendation and eighty percent less than plaintiffs’ original request.”
     “Throughout the opinion, the District Court’s view of plaintiffs and their lawyers is apparent,” Judge Julia Gibbons wrote for the three-judge appellate panel. “The District Court repeatedly expressed concern that the ‘taxpayers will ultimately bear the burden of any fee award [while] the named plaintiffs are medical doctors presumably abundantly capable of paying for representation.'”
     Nugent also demonstrated his skepticism of the “plaintiffs’ and their counsel’s true motives in the litigation,” the court found.
     He “snidely remarked that ‘counsel was merely scouring through campaign laws hoping to find an old one such as the statute at issue here to challenge in the hope of raking in overstated fees,'” Gibbons wrote.
     The appellate panel also noted Nugent “was frustrated by the thought that ‘this action was derived mainly by counsel in order to garner fees and not from plaintiffs’ frustrated desire to make a campaign contribution.”
     Nugent had noted that work by court-appointed attorneys in criminal cases could “literally mean the difference between life and death” but still cost under $17,000. He found it “unfathomable” that Chandra Law would seek so much more.
     The appellate court found it improper Thursday to reduce the fee award based on the view that Chandra’s clients “are not the typical civil rights plaintiffs.”
     For this clear abuse of discretion, the plaintiffs are entitled to a new calculation and reassignment on remand, according to the ruling.
     “We acknowledge that this case concerns a fee application ending two years of litigation in front of a judge who is intimately familiar with the facts,” Gibbons wrote. “We emphasize, however, that fee cases are as worthy of reassignment as those on the merits. … And litigants deserve a fair judge – and the appearance of one – no matter what the dispute. As far as reassignment is concerned, outside of the billing records attached to the fee motion, the case’s history is relatively uncomplicated and short. Furthermore, a new judge would have the benefit of the magistrate judge’s opinion, which streamlines the issues.”

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