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Estien v. Christian

decided: January 2, 1975.

HECTOR AVILA ESTIEN, AN INFANT BY HIS NEXT FRIEND, MARIANOESTIEN, APPELLEE
v.
CLIFFORD CHRISTIAN, ET AL. CLIFFORD CHRISTIAN, APPELLANT



APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS DIVISION OF ST. CROIX (D.C. Civil No. 216/73).

Seitz, Chief Judge, and Van Dusen and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Author: Van Dusen

Opinion OF THE COURT

VAN DUSEN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal challenges the amount of attorney's fees awarded by the district court in a judgment entered in favor of the plaintiff, and against defendant Christian, on June 27, 1974. We vacate that part of the judgment which awarded the fees and remand for further consideration in light of our recent opinion in Lindy Bros. Bldrs., Inc. of Phila. v. American R. & S. San. Corp., 487 F.2d 161 (3d Cir. 1973); see also Merola v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 493 F.2d 292 (3d Cir. 1974).

The complaint, brought by a student at the public school where defendant Christian was then acting principal, pleaded two separate causes of action. One was brought against the Government of the Virgin Islands pursuant to the Virgin Islands Tort Claims Act, Title 33 V.I.C. Ch. 118.*fn1 The second cause of action was brought against Christian pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn2 Both causes of action were tried at the same time, but the claim against the Government was tried to the court, while the civil rights action was submitted to a jury. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff in the amount of $150.00 compensatory damages, declining to award any punitive damages. In addition to the damages assessed by the jury and nominal costs, the judgment of the court awarded the plaintiff an attorney's fee of $1500.00.

5 V.I.C. § 541 provides in pertinent part:

"(a) Costs which may be allowed in a civil action include:

(6) Attorney's fees as provided in subsection (b) of this section.

"(b) The measure and mode of compensation of attorneys shall be left to the agreement, expressed or implied, of the parties; but there shall be allowed to the prevailing party in the judgment such sums as the court in its discretion may fix by way of indemnity for his attorneys fees in maintaining the action or defenses thereto."

Although the matter of the award and its amount are within the district court's discretion, "the amount of attorney's fees to be awarded to the prevailing party is . . . intended to be an indemnification of the prevailing party for a fair and reasonable portion of his attorney's fees incurred in the prosecution or defense of the action, and not for the whole amount charged by the attorney . . .." Lucerne Investment Co. v. Estate Belvedere, Inc., 411 F.2d 1205, 1207 (3d Cir. 1969). Standards to guide the district courts in awarding such reasonable fees were stated by Chief Judge Seitz in Lindy, supra at 167:

"Before the value of the attorney's services can be determined, the district court must ascertain just what were those services. To this end the first inquiry of the court should be into the hours spent by the attorneys -- how many hours were spent in what manner by which attorneys. It is not necessary to know the exact number of minutes spent nor the precise activity to which each hour was devoted nor the specific attainments of each attorney. But without some fairly definite information as to the hours devoted to various general activities . . ., the court cannot know the nature of the services for which compensation is sought.

"After determining, as above, the services performed by the attorneys, the district court must attempt to ...


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