Federal Appeals Court Hands Plaintiffs a Victory
In the recent case of Joyce v. Town of Dennis, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit overturned the decision of the trial court that had shortchanged civil rights plaintiffs. Jim Weliky and Ellen Messing, partners in our firm, co-wrote the friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association (“MELA”). MELA’s position was accepted virtually unchanged by the higher court.
In Joyce, a female golfer challenged her exclusion from a men’s-only golf tournament run by the Town of Dennis, even though she was willing to play by the “men’s” rules. Ms. Joyce prevailed and received a modest damages award from the jury. However, even though she prevailed on several important legal principles about equal access to public facilities, and even though the Town had fought the case aggressively, the trial court cut her attorneys’ fee award to a fraction of the actual time spent in part because of the low damages award and in part because the plaintiff had rejected a settlement offer for an amount close to what was recovered. If the trial court’s reasoning were followed by other courts, lawyers representing plaintiffs would be found to reject cases that did not promise high damages awards, but only matters of principle.
In reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeals accepted several important points from MELA’s brief. First, it made clear that it is improper in a civil rights case to link attorneys fees solely to the damage award, since often the victory involves vindication of rights not measurable in dollars – like enhanced access to a public facility. Second, the court pointed out that often, civil rights victories help “the public as a whole,” not just the individual plaintiff. Third, the court said that the fact that the Town had offered to settle the case for an amount close to but lower than what the jury awarded should not have been considered by the trial court in determining whether the fees requested were reasonable, but that the vigorousness of the Town’s defense should have been considered. Thus, the appeals court acknowledged that plaintiffs’ lawyers don’t work in a vacuum, and must spend enormous amounts of time responding to employer’s tactical defenses. The appeals court’s full decision can be found here.
Messing, Rudavsky & Weliky is proud to have played a role in this important victory for civil rights plaintiffs.