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Law School Case Brief

Venegas v. Mitchell - 495 U.S. 82, 110 S. Ct. 1679 (1990)


42 U.S.C.S. § 1988 makes the prevailing party eligible for a discretionary award of attorney's fees. Because it is the party, rather than the lawyer, who is so eligible, fees may be awarded under § 1988 even to those plaintiffs who did not need them to maintain their litigation, either because they were fortunate enough to be able to retain counsel on a fee-paying basis, or because they were represented free of charge by nonprofit legal aid organizations. Implicitly, statutory awards of fees can coexist with private fee arrangements. And just as it is the party's entitlement to receive the fees in the appropriate case, so far as § 1988 is concerned, it is the party's right to waive, settle, or negotiate that eligibility.


In connection with petitioner Venegas' civil rights suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he and respondent Mitchell, an attorney, entered into a contingent-fee contract providing that, inter alia, Mitchell would receive a percentage of any gross recovery, which would be offset by any court-awarded attorney's fees, and would be allowed to intervene in the action to protect the fee award. Venegas obtained a judgment and was awarded attorney's fees, $ 75,000 of which was attributable to work done by Mitchell. The fees were awarded under § 1988, which enables civil rights plaintiffs to employ reasonably competent lawyers without cost to themselves by authorizing the payment of a "reasonable attorney's fee" by a losing party to a prevailing party. After Venegas obtained different counsel to handle his appeal, Mitchell filed a motion for leave to intervene, requesting that the district court confirm a lien on the judgment for $ 406,000 in fees that were purportedly due him under the contract. Among other things, the court held that he was not entitled to intervene, but it refused to disallow or reduce the contingent fee, holding that it was reasonable and not a windfall to Mitchell. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's holding denying intervention, but agreed that § 1988 does not prevent a lawyer from collecting a reasonable contingent fee even if it exceeds the statutory fee award and that Mitchell's fee was reasonable and not a windfall. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Did Section 1988 interfere with the enforceability of a contingent-fee contract?




The Court held that what a plaintiff might be bound to pay and what an attorney was free to collect under a fee agreement were not necessarily measured by the reasonable attorney's fee that a defendant must pay pursuant to a court order. Section 1988 did not interfere with the enforceability of a contingent-fee contract.

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