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Law School Case Brief

Blanchard v. Bergeron - 489 U.S. 87, 109 S. Ct. 939 (1989)


A lower court should make an initial estimate of reasonable attorney's fees by applying prevailing billing rates to the hours reasonably expended on successful claims. That initial estimate of a reasonable attorney's fee is properly calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation times a reasonable hourly rate. The courts may then adjust this lodestar calculation by other factors. It has never suggested that a different approach is to be followed in cases where the prevailing party and his (or her) attorney have executed a contingent-fee agreement. To the contrary, courts have adopted the lodestar approach as the centerpiece of attorney's fee awards.


After a jury awarded Petitioner Arthur J. Blanchard $10,000 in damages on his claim that respondent Sheriff's Deputy James Bergeron 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 Blanchard’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.


Did the appellate court err in reducing the award of attorney's fees to the amount that would have been owed under Blanchard’s contingency agreement with his attorney?




The Court held that the appropriate standard for an award of fees under § 1988 was one of reasonableness in light of all of the circumstances of a particular case. Thus, the amount of a fee was not determined by what would have been owed under a contingency fee agreement. Rather, the initial estimate of a fee was properly calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the matter by a reasonable hourly rate. A trial court was permitted to modify that lodestar amount by other factors. The nature of a fee arrangement was a factor that could be considered in the determination of a reasonable fee. However, an agreement was not, by itself, controlling. Furthermore, while the Johnson factors, which were frequently used to assess the reasonableness of a fee under § 706(k) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e-5(k), were also relevant to that determination, they were not a substitute for the initial calculation of a reasonable fee.

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