BLANCHARD V. BERGERON, 489 U. S. 87 (1989)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Blanchard v. Bergeron, 489 U.S. 87 (1989)

Blanchard v. Bergeron

No. 87-1485

Argued November 28, 1988

Decided February 21, 1989

489 U.S. 87


After a jury awarded petitioner $10,000 in damages on his claim that respondent sheriff's deputy had beaten him and thereby deprived him of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Federal District Court awarded him $7,500 in attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that the court, "in its discretion, may allow . . . a reasonable attorney's fee" to a prevailing party in certain federal civil rights actions, including those under § 1983. The Court of Appeals reduced the fee award to $4,000, ruling that petitioner's 40% contingent fee arrangement with his lawyer served as a cap on the amount of fees that could be awarded. The court also found that hours billed for the time of law clerks and paralegals were not compensable, since they would be included within the contingency fee.


1. An attorney's fee allowed under § 1988 is not limited to the amount provided in the plaintiff's contingent fee arrangement with his counsel. To hold otherwise would be inconsistent with the statute, which broadly requires all defendants to pay a reasonable fee to all prevailing plaintiffs if ordered to do so by the court acting in its sound judgment and in light of all the circumstances of the case. This Court's decisions have required that the initial estimate of a reasonable court-awarded fee be calculated by multiplying prevailing billing rates by the hours reasonably expended on successful claims, which "lodestar" figure may then be adjusted by other factors. The Court has never suggested that any one such factor should substitute for the lodestar approach. In fact, the lodestar figure is entitled to a strong presumption of reasonableness, and prevents a "windfall" for attorneys in § 1983 actions by guaranteeing that they receive only the reasonable worth of the services rendered. Thus, as § 1988's legislative history confirms, a private fee arrangement is but one of the many factors to be considered and cannot, standing alone, impose an automatic limitation on the exercise of the trial judge's discretion, which is central to the operation of the statute. Moreover, such a limitation might place an undesirable emphasis on the importance of the recovery of damages, whereas § 1988 makes no distinction between damages actions and equitable suits, but was intended to encourage meritorious claims, irrespective of their nature, because of the benefits of

Page 489 U. S. 88

civil rights litigation for the named plaintiff and for society at large. Fee awards in § 1983 damages cases should not be modeled upon the contingent fee arrangements used in personal injury litigation, which benefits only the individual plaintiff. Pp. 489 U. S. 91-96.

2. Since the Court of Appeals erred in ruling that the fee award was controlled by the contingency arrangement, it must consider the determination of the total fee award on remand. P. 489 U. S. 97.

831 F.2d 563, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 489 U. S. 97.

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