Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bravo v. City of Santa Maria (9th Cir. - Jan. 12, 2016)

Today was a good day in the Ninth Circuit for civil rights plaintiffs.  And their lawyers.

First you have the Ninth Circuit affirming a fee award of over $1 million to a prevailing plaintiff who obtained $5000 in damages at trial as a result of an unconstitutional entry into a home.  That's a pretty piece of change.  The attorney's fees anyway, not the damage award.

I must say that it seemed a pretty striking set of facts.  The warrant that the police officers got to search the residence failed to mention that the suspect hadn't lived at that residence for seven months, and, indeed, had been in prison that entire time.  And the entry into the home wasn't some tiny little affair:  "At 5:26 a.m. on April 26, 2006, a Santa Barbara Police Department SWAT team knocked on the front door of the Bravos’ residence, announced their presence, and three seconds later shot off the locks and broke down the door. Simultaneously, the team deployed two 'flashbang' grenades outside of the back door."

Do that to my house and I'll be lucky not to have a heart attack and die right there.

A jury might well have rationally awarded substantially more than $5000 in damages.  But $5000 was how they saw the case.

So $1 million in fees?

The Ninth Circuit's fine with that.  Judge Reinhardt concurs and explains why he's totally fine with that, especially given the nature of the facts.  But Judge Hawkins' opinion focuses instead on the prior $360,000 settlement that the plaintiffs were able to extract from the other defendants.  Given that the claims against the various defendants were inextricably linked, and given (the majority agrees) that there were some real public benefits that resulted from this litigation, it wasn't merely a tiny victory, notwithstanding the $5000 (plus $360,000) result, so $1 million in fees was an appropriate result.

Given that the other published opinion today reversed the dismissal of a different Section 1983 case on the merits, it's a good day to be a civil rights attorney.

Or at least a slightly better one.