Seventh Circuit lets City of Chicago off the hook for paying attorney's fee award against cop

By Kenneth Lowe | Nov 19, 2014

The City of Chicago does not have to pay an attorney's fee award for a police officer who was sued by a man allegedly injured while detained in handcuffed, a federal appeals panel held this month.

The ruling reverses U.S. District Judge Elaine E. Bucklo's determination that the city was liable for the fees awarded against its officer under the Illinois Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act.

Reversing in favor of the city, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said this law gives municipalities discretion, as opposed to a mandate, as to whether it pays fees associated with an award of compensatory damages.

The panel - John Daniel Tinder, Richard A. Posner and Ilana Diamond Rovner--handed down its ruling Nov. 7, but amended it on Nov. 14, when it appears the judges deleted one paragraph from the eight-page opinion that Tinder wrote.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit Robert L. Winston brought in 2010 over claims Chicago Police Officers Matthew O’Brien and Nicholas Yates tased and punched him while handcuffed.

A jury found in favor of Yates, but found O’Brien was liable for $1 in compensatory damages and $7,500 in punitive damages.

Winston then petitioned for an award of $337,000 in attorney’s fees. O’Brien argued against the award, saying Winston couldn't recover these fees because his compensatory damages award was so minimal. 

Bucklo rejected the police officer's argument, pointing out that Winston’s victory was “real, not Pyrrhic,” as the jury awarded him “sizable punitive damages against Officer O’Brien, whose actions were the primary focus of plaintiff’s case.”

The district court also said Winston’s attorneys could recover fees for all their requested hours, but at a lower rate than they wanted, settling on a reduced award of $187,000.

Winston then petitioned the court to either make the city to pay the fee award or indemnify O’Brien for the fees, arguing that it had a responsibility to do so under state law and, separately, under its collective bargaining agreement with the city's police officers.

In response, the city said the fees at issue were not adequately associated with compensatory damages (as opposed to punitive damages) to require indemnification, and that the state statute Winston cited makes such indemnification discretionary, rather than mandatory. It also argued Winston’s labor contract argument was not applicable.

Bucklo ruled in Winston’s favor, first rejecting the city’s argument that the fees were not associated with compensatory damages, writing “there was “no clear divide between the legal work performed in support of Winston’s claim for compensatory damages and the legal work performed in support of his claim for punitive damages.”

The district court also ruled that the city’s liability to pay attorney’s fees stemmed from its liability to pay compensatory damages, and also reasoned the city had characterized itself as “at the helm” of O’Brien’s defense.

“[I]t would be unfair to pass the cost of the City’s litigation strategy on to [Winston], who may have little chance of recovering from defendant the fees to which he is entitled…” Bucklo held, according the panel's opinion.

The lower court subsequently granted Winston’s request of an additional $91,000 in court fees due to the ongoing matter, which the city again argued against and the court again rejected in favor of Winston.

Ultimately, however, the Seventh Circuit reversed those decisions in favor of the city.

“[T]he plain language of [state statute] gives the City discretion in deciding to indemnify attorney’s fees associated with an award of compensatory damages, and the [collective bargaining agreement] with the police union does not convert [state statute] into a mandate to pay fees," Tinder wrote for the panel. "We thus conclude that the district court erred in ordering the City to indemnify Officer O’Brien’s attorney’s fees."

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