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BLANCHARD v. BERGERON ET AL.

decided: February 21, 1989.

BLANCHARD
v.
BERGERON ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 97.

Author: White

[ 489 U.S. Page 88]

 JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue before us is whether an attorney's fee allowed under 42 U. S. C. § 1988 is limited to the amount provided in a contingent-fee arrangement entered into by a plaintiff and his counsel.

I

Petitioner Arthur J. Blanchard brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana alleging violations of his civil rights under 42 U. S. C. § 1983. Blanchard asserted that he was beaten by Sheriff's Deputy James Bergeron while he was in Oudrey's Odyssey Lounge. Blanchard brought his claim against the deputy, the sheriff, and the St. Martin Parish Sheriff's Department. He also joined with his civil rights claim a state-law negligence claim against the above defendants and against the owners and a

[ 489 U.S. Page 89]

     manager of the lounge and the lounge itself. The case was tried and a jury awarded Blanchard compensatory damages in the amount of $5,000 and punitive damages in the amount of $5,000 on his § 1983 claim. Under the provisions of 42 U. S. C. § 1988, which permit the award of attorney's fees to a prevailing party in certain federal civil rights actions,*fn1 Blanchard sought attorney's fees and costs totaling more than $40,000. The District Court, after reviewing the billing and cost records furnished by counsel, awarded $7,500 in attorney's fees and $886.92 for costs and expenses.*fn2

[ 489 U.S. Page 90]

     Petitioner appealed this award to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, seeking to increase the award. The Court of Appeals, however, reduced the award because petitioner had entered into a contingent-fee arrangement with his lawyer,*fn3 under which the attorney was to receive 40% of any damages awarded should petitioner prevail in his suit. While recognizing that other Circuits had different views, the court held that it was bound by its prior decision in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 718 (1974), to rule that the contingency-fee agreement "serves as a cap on the amount of attorney's fee to be awarded." 831 F.2d 563, 564 (1987). The court further found that hours billed for the time of law clerks and paralegals were not compensable since they would be included within the contingency fee. Ibid. Accordingly, the court limited the fee award to 40% of the $10,000 damages award -- $4,000.

Because other Courts of Appeals have concluded that a § 1988 fee award should not be limited by a contingent-fee agreement between the attorney and his client,*fn4 we granted certiorari to resolve the conflict, 487 U.S. 1217 (1988). We now reverse.

[ 489 U.S. Page 91]

     II

Section 1988 provides that the court, "in its discretion, may allow . . . a reasonable attorney's fee . . . ." The section does not provide a specific definition of "reasonable" fee, and the question is whether the award must be limited to the amount provided in a contingent-fee agreement. The legislative history of the Act is instructive insofar as it tells us: "In computing the fee, counsel for prevailing parties should be paid, as is traditional with attorneys compensated by a fee-paying client, 'for all time reasonably expended on a matter.'" S. Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 6 (1976) (citing Davis v. County of Los Angeles, 8 EPD para. 9444 (CD Cal. 1974); and Stanford Daily v. Zurcher, 64 F. R. D. 680, 684 (ND Cal. 1974)).

In many past cases considering the award of attorney's fees under § 1988, we have turned our attention to Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express, Inc., supra, a case decided before the enactment of the Civil Rights Attorney's Fee Award Act of 1976. As we stated in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429-431 (1983), Johnson provides guidance to Congress' intent because both the House and Senate Reports refer to the 12 ...


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