Sacramento County pays $2 in damages, $197,505 in attorney fees, for civil rights case

A federal judge has ordered Sacramento County to pay an attorney $197,505 in fees after a jury awarded the attorney’s two clients $1 each on their claims that they endured excessive force while inmates at the county’s downtown jail.

It is a classic illustration of why civil rights defendants in federal court and their attorneys often are reluctant to go to trial. Any award to plaintiffs, no matter how small, makes them prevailing parties and, in most instances, entitles their attorneys to fees and costs.

“The federal civil rights fee statute was designed for cases like this – to give attorneys an incentive to vindicate very important constitutional rights,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Gary Gorski in an email message.

On March 1, an eight-member jury affirmed the highly publicized claims of Robert E. Hunter and Howard Eley that their constitutional rights were violated when they were attacked for no legitimate reason by sheriff’s deputies while in custody.

By the time the case reached trial, there were no individual defendants left, leaving only the county to defend the one remaining claim. In a rare verdict, the panel came down in favor of the plaintiffs, deciding that the deputies’ unlawful actions grew out of a long-standing practice or custom constituting a standard operating procedure at the jail.

This allegation has been included in most of the seemingly endless series of lawsuits over abuse of Sacramento jail inmates, but it has almost always been dismissed for lack of evidence. Thus, it is unusual for such a claim to reach trial, and even more unusual for one to be ratified by a jury.

The jurors awarded nominal compensation, apparently concluding the plaintiffs suffered no substantive damages.

“My clients would have accepted an apology,” Gorski said, “but instead of an apology, the county thought it was more important to pay defense attorneys hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than apologizing and taking corrective action; that’s what really boggles my mind.”

County Counsel John Whisenhunt was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Private attorney Thomas Cregger, who handled the litigation for the county, did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. awarded Gorski nearly $200,000 in fees over Cregger’s stringent objections.

Quoting now-retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurrence in a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Cregger argued: “In a civil rights suit for damages ... the awarding of nominal damages highlights the plaintiff’s failure to prove actual, compensable injury.” Therefore, “the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all.”

Cregger insisted that “if fees are awarded, they should be reduced significantly” because of the plaintiffs’ minimal success.

Burrell did cut the amount Gorski asked for – $404,705 – by more than half and rejected a request by attorney Daniel Karalash, who gave Gorski limited assistance, for a fee of $4,550.

Citing a 1992 appellate opinion, Cregger further argued that for a federal trial court to award fees in such a situation, “it must point to some way in which the litigation succeeded, in addition to obtaining ... nominal damages.”

Burrell ruled that two other factors weighed heavily in favor of a fee award.

First was the significance of the legal issue on which the plaintiffs prevailed. Their claim “involves the unconstitutional use of force, which has the level of significance required to tip this factor in favor of awarding reasonable fees,” the judge stated.

Second was the question whether the plaintiffs accomplished some public goal, Burrell said in his 21-page order: “It is logical to expect, in the face of this jury verdict, that the county will take a closer look at its practices concerning the level of force used by its officers in the Sacramento County Main Jail. Such a result justifies some amount of attorney fees.”

The trial earlier this year was the second in the 71/2-year-old lawsuit. A jury in 2008 rejected the claims of Hunter and Eley.

But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that the jurors were not properly instructed on the law by Burrell and sent the case back to him for a retrial.

Hunter claimed the toilet in his detox cell was clogged and overflowing and he signaled deputies and asked for access to another toilet. Instead, he alleged, he was thrown to the floor and subjected to force that resulted in an elbow fracture, stretched tendons and nerve damage.

Eley complained that he and Deputy William Kevin Sowles had a verbal exchange, “following which Sowles shoved, slapped and then choked Eley without provocation.” Sowles was fired, but he was dismissed as a defendant because he was never served with the suit.