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Jama v. Esmor Correctional Services Inc.

April 23, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Debevoise, Senior District Judge



On November 13, 2007, the jury in this case returned a verdict for plaintiff Hawa Abdi Jama ("Jama"), awarding her one dollar against two defendants for her claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb, and $100,000 on her related pendant state law claims. Debevoise & Plimpton LLP ("D&P")*fn1 and the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic (the "Clinic," collectively, the "Movants"), attorneys for Jama, bring this application for an order granting certain attorney's fees and expenses, related to the RFRA claims, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.


This was an action brought by nine plaintiffs (the "Plaintiffs") against Esmor Correctional Services, Inc. ("Esmor"), John Lima ("Lima"), and others. The checkered history of this case is described in detail in the numerous opinions issued since its inception in 1997*fn2 . Suffice it to say, the case arose out of the appalling conditions that prevailed at the detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey (the "Elizabeth Center"), managed by Esmor under contract with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. With one exception, the Plaintiffs were persons awaiting hearing on their applications for asylum.

The matter came to trial in September 2007 after more than ten years of expensive, complex litigation*fn3 . For most of the litigation, and for all of the trial, Plaintiffs were represented, pro bono, by lawyers and law students associated with the Movants.

A. The Claims and Verdict

By the conclusion of the nearly six week trial, all of the plaintiffs, except Jama, had settled with all the remaining defendants. Four of Jama's claims went to the jury: (i) violation of Jama's rights under the RFRA; (ii) violation of the Alien Tort Claims Act ("ATCA"), 28 U.S.C. § 1350; iii) negligent hiring, training, retention and supervision of administrators John Lima and Willard Stovall; and, iv) negligent hiring, training, retention and supervision of Esmor security officers (the "Negligence Claims"). The total amount of damages sought was nearly $5 million, plus punitive damages, including $250,000 sought in statutory damages under RFRA.

On November 13, 2007, the jury returned a verdict, finding no liability against any defendant standing trial under the ATCA or pursuant to the claim of negligent hiring, training, retention and supervision of John Lima and Willard Stovall.

On the RFRA claim the jury found against Esmor and Lima, awarding her one dollar in damages. On the New Jersey negligence claim, the jury found against Esmor, Slattery, Staley and Lima, awarding Jama $100,000.

B. Representation of Plaintiffs

The Clinic began representing Jama and eight other individuals (collectively "Plaintiffs"), pro bono, in June 1995, and commenced this litigation on their behalf, in June 1997. D&P began working on the case, also pro bono, in December 1997. Together, Movants submit that they have incurred expenses and rendered services valued at a combined total of more than $17.1 million on the case.

Jama, by letter, terminated her relationship with Movants in December, 2007, though Movants continue to represent Jama for purposes of Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, and for purposes of this fee application*fn4 .


The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the application of the "American Rule" that "each party in a lawsuit ordinarily shall bear its own attorney's fees unless there is express statutory authorization to the contrary." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 1937 (1983) (citing Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 95 S.Ct. 1612 [1975] [Denying attorney's fees to a civil rights plaintiff]) . Following the court's decision in Alyeska Pipeline, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, authorizing the district courts to award a reasonable attorney's fee to prevailing parties in civil rights litigation. Id. The purpose of § 1988 is to ensure "effective access to the judicial process" for persons with civil rights grievances. Id. (citing H.R.Rep. No. 94-1558, p. 1 [1976]). The court held that "[a] prevailing plaintiff should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.' " S.Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 4 (1976), U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1976, p. 5912 (quoting Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, 390 U.S. 400, 402 [1968])

A. Fee Shifting Under § 1988

In this case, Defendants argue that Jama's one-dollar award and pendant state-law award do not entitle her to damages under § 1988 because the facts supporting Jama's state-law claims were "completely different" from those giving rise to her RFRA claims. Defendants contend that Jama's nominal damages award on her RFRA claim does not make her a prevailing party for fee-shifting purposes. Movants argue that much of the same conduct which gave rise to Plaintiffs' RFRA claims also gave rise to the pendant Negligence Claims, and that Movants are entitled to an award of attorney's fees under § 1988.

A plaintiff prevails "when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff." P.N. v. Clementon Bd. of Educ., 442 F.3d 848, 855 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 [1992]). "[P]laintiffs may be considered 'prevailing parties' for attorney[s'] fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Clementon, 442 F.3d at 855 (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 [1983]). In this case, Jama has secured: (1) nominal damages and a favorable judgment on the merits of her RFRA claims, and (2) substantial damages and a favorable judgment on the merits of her related state-law claims. These achievements clearly result in both a modification of the Defendants' behavior, and a benefit for the prevailing party. See Bridges v. Eastman Kodak Co., 102 F.3d 56, 58 (2d Cir. 1996)*fn5 (citing Farrar, 506 U.S. at 111-12 [1992]).

The Farrar Court found that the plaintiff in that case was not entitled to attorney's fees because he sought compensatory damages, but received no more than nominal damages. Id. 506 U.S. at 115. Whether a plaintiff is entitled to attorney's fees depends upon "the degree of plaintiff's overall success." Id. at 114. Justice Ginsburg, writing a concurring opinion, summarized why plaintiff Farrar was not entitled to attorney's fees:

If ever there was a plaintiff who deserved no attorney's fees at all, that plaintiff is Joseph Farrar. He filed a lawsuit demanding 17 million dollars from six defendants. After 10 years of litigation and two trips to the Court of Appeals, he got one dollar from one defendant. As the Court holds today, that is simply not the type of victory that merits an award of attorney's fees.

Id. at 116. Although the instant litigation has lasted more than a decade, and involved claims for damages greater than the amount the jury ultimately awarded, Jama's award of more than $100,000 represents a substantial ...

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