U.S. Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit
Civil Rights – Attorney fees
The district court properly awarded attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff for time spent litigating attorney fees.
“We note at the outset that we need not consider Morjal’s argument that a request for fees on fees is distinct from the underlying action and therefore is not bounded by the Rule 68 judgment. Even assuming the applicability and limiting our review to the plain language of the offer of judgment, the defendants cannot prevail in this case. That is because the language of the offer of judgment limits the plaintiff to fees that had accrued as of that date (the date of acceptance of the offer) in return for the defendants’ agreement ‘to allow judgment to be taken against them … in the total amount of … reasonable attorney’s fees.’ To the extent that the defendants raised non-frivolous challenges to the amount of attorneys’ fees in determining what was ‘reasonable,’ they would still be in compliance with that obligation. But here, the district court determined that the defendants’ arguments went beyond legitimate challenges to reasonableness. The court held that the defendants’ opposition to fees was ‘overly aggressive’ and ‘arbitrary.’ Although Morjal sought $16,773.00 for fees incurred in litigating the fee petition, the court awarded only $2,000 for ‘time spent responding to challenges to the fees that were unsupported and improper.’ Accordingly, the court limited the fee award to the time spent responding to litigation that violated the terms of the offer of judgment itself in that it went beyond non-frivolous arguments as to whether the fees sought were reasonable. The defendants’ arbitrary, improper challenges failed to comply with their obligation to ‘allow judgment to be taken against them’ for reasonable attorneys’ fees, and therefore were not subject to the limitations on fees in that agreement. The court could properly award fees for those litigation costs under § 1988. See Sanchez, 709 F.3d at 692 (any ambiguities in the Rule 68 offer must be construed against the offering defendant).”
14-1365 Morjal v. City of Chicago
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Lefkow, J., Rovner, J.