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Monday, September 16, 2019

Seventh Circuit reverses Reagan’s denial of attorney fees in civil rights trial

Lawsuits

By Record News | Jul 5, 2018


CHICAGO – Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan of East St. Louis improperly denied fees to Judith Redwood of St. Joseph (Champaign County) after her client won a civil rights trial, Seventh Circuit appellate judges ruled on June 29. 

They gave no credit to allegations Reagan brought against Redwood in a complaint to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC). 

The ARDC’s website showed a clean record for her as of June 29. 

Reagan didn’t preside at trial, but injected himself into the proceedings after the verdict solely to resolve Redwood’s fee petition. 

Seventh Circuit Justice Michael Kanne chided him for entering the case because of his particular interest in attorney fees. 

“Judges in the district courts are meant to be generalists,” Kanne wrote. 

He wrote that District Judge Nancy Rosenstengel, who presided at trial, must specify her reasons if she again refers the matter to another judge. 

Redwood represents Isaac Capps of Richland County, who sued six officers from the state police, Franklin County, and the city of West Frankfort in 2014. 

Capps’ suit claimed they used excessive force causing Capps to receive personal injuries, or they stood by and failed to intervene. 

After trial, in 2016, jurors found against James Trogolo of West Frankfort and Kevin Roye of Franklin County on excessive force. 

Jurors rejected excessive force claims against Kevin Drake of state police and Brice Shaffer of Franklin County. 

On failure to intervene, jurors found against Trogolo, Roye, Drake, Shaffer, and state police officers Jared Freeman and Shawn Isaacs. 

Jurors awarded Capps $22,000 in compensatory damages. 

They awarded punitive damages of $5,000 each against Trogolo and Roye. 

They awarded $23 each in punitive damages against Drake, Shaffer, Freeman and Isaacs, a dollar for every second the incident lasted. 

Redwood petitioned for fees at $450 an hour for herself and $175 for paralegal Erik Redwood, plus expenses, for a total of $397,622.50. 

“Plaintiff was represented by a solo practice attorney,” Redwood wrote. “In opposition were two private insurance defense law firms and the office of the attorney general of the state of Illinois.” 

She wrote that she declined representation in civil rights cases due to the time she needed to litigate a vigorously opposed case. 

Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law. 

They opposed Redwood’s fee petition, arguing the verdict didn’t count as victory. 

Rosenstengel ordered a settlement conference, and it produced no result. She then referred the fee dispute to Reagan, who held a hearing in September 2016. 

He told the lawyers, “You might be wondering why it was sent to me. 

“I have a particular interest in attorneys’ fees, having been a commissioner with the Illinois attorney registration and disciplinary commission and handled a lot of the attorney fee petitions in our court.” 

Redwood said Capps was 100 percent successful in obtaining his primary goal. 

Reagan said, “Which was what?” 

She said public vindication. 

“He wanted the defendants to be found liable for violating his rights,” Redwood said. 

Reagan asked if her retainer agreement was unconscionable, and she said she didn’t believe so. 

“It is the most one sided contract I have ever seen,” Reagan said. 

James Cook of Belleville, representing Togolo, agreed that a fee should be paid but said it has to be reasonable. 

Cook said Capps rejected settlement offers. 

Redwood responded that, although defendants did offer settlement, “they never offered attorney fees and they never offered to accept liability.” 

She said the award was a year’s salary for a worker such as Capps. 

Reagan said, “He is not going to get anything.” 

Redwood said, “He’s going to get to pay his child support lien, which he is very interested in doing.” 

Reagan said she asked for 450. 

Redwood said, “It was a difficult case.” 

Reagan said, “This was not a difficult case…Your plaintiff was mediocre at best. He was not warm and fuzzy, wasn’t going to endear himself to the jury. This case never ever had six figure potential, never.” 

Redwood said, “He wanted to go to the jury. He went to the jury.” 

Reagan said, “The only one who had a dog in the fight at that point in time, because he was going to get nothing, was you.” 

Redwood said, “I am entitled to fight for my fees if I believe they are correct.” 

Reagan said, “Are you entitled to churn the case to get more fees knowing the client would get nothing?” 

Redwood said, “I didn’t churn the case. I went to the settlement conference as ordered.” 

Reagan denied fees in March 2017, finding Redwood’s posture and demands made it clear she placed her pecuniary interests above her client’s interest.  

He wrote that it was the first time he refused to award statutory fees. 

“Plaintiff’s counsel’s unethical conduct, outrageous settlement demands and posturing, and frivolous filings coupled with her slash and burn tactics warrant the conclusion,” Reagan wrote. 

Reagan followed with a letter to the ARDC. 

He wrote that it was his first referral based on conduct in a case on his docket. 

Capps appealed and won. 

“Isaac Capps was awarded substantial damages and thus should have been awarded attorney’s fees,” Kanne wrote. 

“Capps succeeded on eight of the ten claims he brought to trial. 

“Capps testified that it was more important to him to take the case to trial and receive a verdict than to accept a large settlement without the officers’ acknowledgement of responsibility. 

“If the contract is invalid, it should not be used as evidence of what the attorney’s hourly fee should be, but it does not justify denying outright the petition for fees.” 

He wrote that it was Capps’s right to insist on taking his case to trial and that the district court was free to consider whether Redwood’s hourly rate was reasonable and whether her reported hours were accurate.

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City of West Frankfort U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois

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