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Spouse of Plaintiff Can Collect Attorney Fees in Civil Rights Case, 9th Circuit Rules

Posted Aug 23, 2011 4:10 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Although the nation's top court says lawyers can't collect attorney fees for representing themselves in civil rights cases, that blanket prohibition doesn't apply to an attorney who serves as a spouse's legal counsel, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Reversing the trial judge in the Central District of California case, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that an attorney who is not only legally married to the prevailing plaintiff but co-owns a residential property at issue in the case is nonetheless qualified to be paid an attorney fee, according to the Metropolitan News-Enterprise.

Prevailing plaintiff Rebecca Rickley, who is also a lawyer, could have been awarded attorney fees for the legal work done by her lawyer spouse, Natasha Roit, the appeals court held in its written opinion (PDF): The emotional bond between spouses doesn't preclude appropriate representation, and a spouse who is a lawyer may be the only counsel available to a plaintiff in a civil rights case.

"There are times when an attorney-spouse may be the only attorney, or the best attorney, available to the plaintiff," the court explains. "Were fees categorically barred in such cases, a meritorious claim might not be brought at all, or it might be brought with counsel who is, though more 'independent' than the plaintiff’s spouse, less effective."

The appeals court remanded the matter to the trial court to determine whether the $124,500 attorney fee sought by Rickley for Roit's work is reasonable.

The underlying case concerns a dispute between the couple and Malibu neighbors who, the couple complained, built illegal structures that contributed to the risk of landslides. When county government officials didn't aggressively enforce the building code, the couple sued the neighbors and won an injunction.

However, when county officials still didn't enforce the building code as the couple thought they should, Roit sued them on Rickley's behalf, contending that her spouse's rights to free speech and equal protection had been violated in retaliation for her many complaints, reports Courthouse News Service.

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