Statutory Loopholes Yield Fees for Attorneys

     (CN) – It was a good day for attorneys’ fees in the 9th Circuit on Wednesday as the court looked at cases involving prisoner medical care and a federal forfeiture action.
     Both rulings find claimant-favorable loopholes in statutes that otherwise limit attorney fees or the way they can be paid out.
     Earnest Cassell Woods II won $1,500 in damages against Santos Cervantes, an appeals coordinator at California State Prison, Salano. A jury found that Cervantes had screened Wood’s medical grievances with an eye toward denying the prisoner dental care, causing him to suffer pain from broken dentures for years. The 9th Circuit affirmed the award on appeal in 2012.
     Woods argued the case pro se in District Court, but had a lawyer on appeal. After he prevailed in the 9th, Woods requested about $17,000 in fees and costs.
     Cervantes objected, however, based on his belief that the Prison Litigation Reform Act capped fees at 150 percent of the judgment, or about $2,250.
     A divided appellate panel in San Francisco disagreed Wednesday, finding that the cap does not apply to “fees incurred on appeal by a prisoner who successfully defends the verdict that he obtained in the district court.”
     Writing in dissent, Judge Mary Murguia argued that the majority’s ruling went against the plain meaning of the law and would cause a circuit split.
     In a second affirmative ruling on attorneys’ fees Wednesday, the 9th Circuit granted about $200,000 in fees and costs to attorney Paul Gabbert, who had successfully defended the now-suspended United Medical Caregivers Clinic (UMCC) against the government in a civil forfeiture proceeding.
     The appeals court had previously rejected Gabbert’s request to have the fees paid to him directly, which generally goes against a provision of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act. But the three-judge panel reconsidered and granted the direct payment Wednesday after Gabbert “brought to light fee agreements between him and UMCC that assign the right to collect any fee award to Gabber.”
     “In interpreting other fee award statutes, we have strongly suggested that fees may be directed to an attorney on account of a contractual assignment, even when the attorney has no statutory right to collect fees directly,” the unsigned order states.
     “UMCC has been dissolved, and no other creditor has come forward to contest the assignment to Gabbert,” the judges added. “The government has not asserted an offset claim. There is no concern that direct payment of the fee award to the attorney will deprive the government or another creditor of what it is due. The government should not be able to negate the fees it owes to UMCC just because UMCC has been dissolved and the only creditor who appeared to collect in its stead is the attorney. Whatever might be the case where there are competing creditors, we conclude that, under these circumstances, Gabbert is entitled to receive payment of the fee award.”

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