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Justices to Weigh Bonus Attorneys' Fees in Civil Rights Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether lawyers who press civil rights cases, such as to improve a state's foster-care system, may be awarded extra money on top of normal attorneys' fees when they bring about major changes.

The justices on Monday granted an appeal by the state of Georgia in a case involving an award of $10.5 milllion in attorneys' fees for lawyers who brought a class action over the state's system for handling children in foster care

A federal district judge authorized a $4.5 million enhancement on top of a $6 million regular fee award because he concluded the lawyers provided exceptional representation and forced significant changes in the system through a consent decree.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, upheld the attorneys' fee bonus in a ruling last year. (The appeals court's opinion has this great opening line: "When asked how much money would be enough for him, John D. Rockefeller reportedly said: 'Just a little bit more.'")

The Supreme Court's decision to take up Perdue v. Kenny A. (Case No. 09-970) could have implications for education in that institutional-reform suits and other civil rights actions have the potentional for requiring states and school districts to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees. The legal issue has to do with whether the extra awards are appropriate when the calculation of regular attorneys' fees for prevailing parties already takes into account the quality of the representation and the results achieved.

Understandably, the lawyers who won the $10.5 million in fees filed a brief arguing that there was really nothing extraordinary about the extra fees and the case did not merit review. They didn't prevail on that, and the Supreme Court will consider the case during its term that begins next October.

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