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BLUM v. STENSON

decided: March 21, 1984.

BLUM, COMMISSIONER, NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES
v.
STENSON



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT.

Powell, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Brennan, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Marshall, J., joined, post, p. 902.

Author: Powell

[ 465 U.S. Page 888]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title 42 U. S. C. § 1988 (1976 ed., Supp. V) provides that in federal civil rights actions "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." The initial estimate of a reasonable attorney's fee is properly calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation times a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). Adjustments to that fee then may be made as necessary in the particular case. The

[ 465 U.S. Page 889]

     two issues in this case are whether Congress intended fee awards to nonprofit legal service organizations to be calculated according to cost or to prevailing market rates, and whether, and under what circumstances, an upward adjustment of an award based on prevailing market rates is appropriate under § 1988.

I

A

This suit was brought in 1978 by respondent on behalf of a statewide class of Medicaid*fn1 recipients pursuant to 42 U. S. C. § 1983 in the District Court for the Southern District of New York. Under New York law, one who is eligible to receive benefits under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, 42 U. S. C. § 1381 et seq. (1976 ed. and Supp. V), automatically is eligible to receive Medicaid benefits. N. Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 363 et seq. (McKinney 1976). Prior to this suit, persons who qualified for Medicaid in this fashion automatically lost their benefits if they thereafter became ineligible for SSI payments. The case was decided on cross-motions for summary judgment after only one set of plaintiff's interrogatories had been served and answered. On these motions, the District Court certified the class*fn2 and rendered final judgment in favor of the class.

[ 465 U.S. Page 890]

     The court enjoined the prior practice of automatic termination of benefits, and prescribed procedural rights for the certified class that included "(a) an ex parte determination of continued eligibility for Medicaid, independent of eligibility for SSI; (b) timely and adequate notice of such termination; (c) an opportunity for a hearing." Stenson v. Blum, 476 F.Supp. 1331, 1335 (1979). The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed in an unpublished oral opinion from the bench. Affirmance order, Stenson v. Blum, 628 F.2d 1345, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 885 (1980). Respondent's subsequent request for an award of reasonable attorney's fees under § 1988 is the subject of the present case.

B

Throughout this litigation, respondent was represented by attorneys from the Legal Aid Society of New York, a private nonprofit law office.*fn3 In November 1980, respondent filed a request for attorney's fees for the period December 1978 through the end of the litigation. Her three attorneys sought payment for some 809 hours of work at rates varying from $95 to $105 per hour.*fn4 This amounted to approximately

[ 465 U.S. Page 891]

     $79,312. Respondent's total fee request, however, reflected a 50% increase in that fee. In her brief to the District Court, respondent explained that such an increase was necessary to compensate for the complexity of the case, the novelty of the issues, and the "great benefit" achieved. The total requested fee amounted to approximately $118,968. Petitioner opposed the fee award on the grounds that the rates were exorbitant, the number of hours charged were unreasonable and duplicative, and the 50% "bonus" was improper.

Petitioner submitted no evidence to support her claim that the hours and rates charged by respondent were unreasonable. Instead, petitioner rested her claim that the hours were duplicative and excessive and the rates exorbitant on arguments contained in her brief to the District Court and on that court's discretion. Petitioner requested an evidentiary hearing on the issue of reasonable billable hours only if the District Court found that the discussion in her brief did not justify reductions in the number of hours charged. Finally, petitioner argued that the 50% "bonus" requested by respondent was improper because it would be paid by the public.

The District Court held that both the hours expended and the rates charged were reasonable. It also held that the fee calculated by multiplying the number of hours times the hourly rates should be increased by the requested 50% because of the quality of representation, the complexity of the issues, the riskiness of success, and the "great benefit to a large class" that was achieved. 512 F.Supp. 680, 685 (1981). The District Court awarded the plaintiff class the requested fee of $118,968.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in an unpublished opinion. No. 81-7385 (CA2, Oct. 19, 1981). Affirmance order, 671 F.2d 493

[ 465 U.S. Page 892]

     (1981). We granted certiorari to consider whether it was proper for the District Court to use prevailing market rates in awarding attorney's fees to nonprofit legal services organizations and whether the District Court abused its discretion in increasing ...


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