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Chandra Law Firm obtains reversal of 6th Circuit cap on civil-rights plaintiffs' attorneys' fees recoverable in federal court

Today, the Chandra Law Firm obtained a significant victory in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that will make it more difficult for defendants to engage in abusive litigation tactics against civil-rights plaintiffs and their counsel.

In Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless v. Husted, the court overturned its 1986 decision in Coulter v. State of Tennessee, which had imposed a 3% cap on "fees for fees"―attorneys' fees recoverable for having to litigate to collect attorneys' fees awarded to prevailing parties in civil-rights disputes.

In disposing of "the Coulter cap," the Court observed that it "encourage[d] plaintiffs to accept unjustifiably low settlement terms to avoid a lengthy fee dispute resulting in a less-than-compensatory fee award." And, "[c]onversely, it create[d] an incentive for defendants (typically governmental agencies) to push the fee litigation beyond the 3% cap and use the prospect of numerous hours of uncompensated time as leverage for a lowball settlement proposal."

The Sixth Circuit panel, which included Judges Suhrheinrich, Merritt, and Donald, also rejected the defendants' conclusory assertions about allegedly excessive hours spent by plaintiffs' counsel, and rejected defendants' attempt to use a 2013 report by the Ohio State Bar Association to limit counsel's reasonable hourly rates.

"This decision is a victory for civil-rights plaintiffs. In enacting the fee-shifting statutes, Congress intended to encourage attorneys to accept civil-rights cases," said attorney Subodh Chandra, who represented the plaintiffs in the underlying voting-rights litigation. "As a result of the court's decision, defendants will now properly be required to assess the merits of their appeals on attorneys' fees determinations, and to fully compensate plaintiffs who are successful in protecting such awards on appeal."

Click here for a copy of the Sixth Circuit opinion and coverage at Cleveland.com.

Sandhya Gupta took a leading role for the Chandra Law Firm LLC in the briefing and oral argument. The firm was assisted in these efforts by co-counsel Caroline Gentry of Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur, Donald J. McTigue of McTigue & Columbo, LLC, and Stephen P. Berzon and Stacey Leyton of Altschuler Berzon, LLP. Various organizations and individuals filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the plaintiffs, including the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the ACLU of Ohio, and the Ohio Employment Lawyers Association.

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