Federal Appeals Court Orders Attorneys' Fees For Important Civil Rights Case


Board of Public Works Rejected $60,000 Settlement,
Now Faces Far Higher Bill



August 30, 2011

CONTACT: Meredith Curtis, ACLU of Maryland, 410-889-8555;
Richard A. Simpson, Wiley Rein, 202-719-7314;
Andrew Freeman, Brown Goldstein & Levy, 410-962-1030;

BALTIMORE - In a unanimous opinion released yesterday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that plaintiffs who challenged an unconstitutional regulation limiting First Amendment activities at transit stops are entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys' fees.

The Fourth Circuit reversed a district court decision, which had denied attorneys' fee because the Plaintiffs, who were awarded nominal damages, did not obtain a formal injunction against the regulation. Previously, a different district court judge had held that an injunction was unnecessary because the Maryland Transit Authority had entered into a "judicially binding undertaking" to abandon the regulation.

The Maryland Attorney General's Office had negotiated a settlement whereby Plaintiffs would have accepted $60,000 in full satisfaction of their claim for attorneys' fees. However, the Maryland Board of Public Works rejected the proposed settlement. As a result of the Fourth Circuit's decision, the Board of Public Works will face a bill for several times the amount of the proposed settlement.

In 2006, the MTA enforced a regulation that severely restricted First Amendment activities at MTA bus stops and subway stations against Project Vote and its volunteers, who were attempting to register voters. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and a private firm, Project Vote filed suit in 2007, seeking to prevent the MTA from enforcing that regulation. The MTA soon conceded that the regulation violated the First Amendment and agreed to stop enforcing it.

Following a lengthy delay during which the MTA failed to issue new regulations, Project Vote and its volunteers filed a motion for summary judgment. The district court held that the challenged regulation was unconstitutional and awarded the plaintiffs the $1 each that they had sought as nominal damages. Because the MTA had promised not to enforce the old regulation, the court declined to enter a formal injunction.

The plaintiffs and the state, represented by the Attorney General's Office, then entered into a proposed settlement that would have paid plaintiffs $60,000 in full satisfaction of their claim for attorneys' fees. In March 2010, however, the Board of Public Works rejected that proposed settlement. Plaintiffs then filed a motion seeking $175,000 in fees and costs, but the district court denied that motion and held that plaintiffs were not entitled to any fees at all.

Yesterday, the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling. In doing so, the appellate court emphasized the importance of paying fees to attorneys who take on cases that vindicate important civil rights, such as the voter registration involved in this case, in order to encourage them to serve as a "private attorney general." The court observed that "Plaintiffs successfully brought a meritorious civil rights claim to prevent the enforcement of an unconstitutional government regulation in the public interest; this is the very form of litigation Congress wished to encourage" when it enacted the civil rights attorneys' fees law.

Plaintiffs were represented on appeal by the ACLU of Maryland, Wiley Rein, LLP of Washington, and Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP of Baltimore.

Lead counsel on the appeal, Richard A. Simpson of Wiley Rein, said: "The Fourth Circuit reached the right result. By any real world standard, plaintiffs achieved in this litigation everything they set out to achieve, thereby vindicating important First Amendment rights. The district court decision was fundamentally flawed; a defendant in a civil rights case should not be permitted to avoid an award of fees by rushing to "voluntarily" abandon an unconstitutional regulation after suit has been filed."

Co-counsel Andrew Freeman of Brown, Goldstein & Levy said: "The opinion sends a strong message of encouragement to attorneys to represent civil rights plaintiffs, even in cases in which no money is at stake. It also sends a strong message to the state, and especially to the Board of Public Works, that it should fix civil rights violations promptly and pay fees while they are still low, rather than fighting for years and then having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to the plaintiffs' attorneys."

Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland, said: "One of the great promises of our nation is that the Constitution applies to everyone - rich and poor alike. This decision gives new life to that promise by valuing the role civil rights attorneys play in providing access to justice - even for those of us with limited financial resources."


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