Lawyers get a bad rap even when sometimes it’s deserved. But in the case of Alabama lawyers Wendy Brooks Crew, Alyson Hood Rains and Cameron Hogan, I’m not so sure. The three lawyers have been catching flak ever since it was reported they’d be getting 99.8% of the settlement authorized by the City of Birmingham, Alabama for their client, Anthony Warren. The money settles Warren’s federal suit over police excessive force. But what’s had tongues wagging is that his lawyers will get $100,000 for expenses and $359,000 in fees — while Warren will net $1,000.
Warren’s suit arose after a January 23, 2008 high-speed police chase — where he ran over a police officer, hit a school bus, a police car and ultimately lost control of his van when it rolled into a ditch. He was ejected from the driver’s side window and landed unconscious in the ditch. He plead guilty to charges from the incident, which included attempted murder, and is currently serving a 20-year sentence.
According to court documents, Warren had no recollection after his ejection. Per the court memorandum’s statement of facts, “the police officers “descended on [him] and started to brutally beat him with excessive force. At no time did Plaintiff move or offer any threat of harm to [them]. One of the police officers repeatedly struck Plaintiff’s body with a billy club. Another police officer “pummeled” Plaintiff’s head and upper body with his fist. Three other police officers kicked Plaintiff “numerous times about his body.””
A dashboard police vehicle video camera caught it on tape. In the statement of facts, Warren also maintained“the portion of tape where the [police officers] brutally beat . . . Plaintiff was suppressed by the City of Birmingham and deleted from evidence provided to Plaintiff’s defense counsel.” It was almost one year before Warren and his lawyers obtained the complete unaltered videotape.
Alleging he was the victim of police excessive force when he was beaten as he lay face down and unconscious in the ditch, he sued under federal civil rights statute 42 U.S.C. 1983, which permits “any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof” to bring a private action against another person or entity “who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia” deprives them of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or federal law.
But why did Warren only get $1,000? According to a lawyer for the defendants, he only got “nominal damages” because the City proved his injuries resulted from the vehicle crash not the officers’ actions. Warren’s lawyers dispute this. But without an adjudication, we’ll never know.
Second-guessing the settlement.
Fast forward five and a half years to 2014 and as Warren’s lawyers maintain — “thousands of hours” and it’s easy to second-guess their out-of-court settlement absent more facts.
But lawyers steeped in such civil rights claims acknowledge police brutality suits are long, hard-fought and difficult to win. Warren’s lawyers say as much in a public statement they felt compelled to make after all the negative post-settlement fallout. It mentions “very difficult burdens of proof,” police officer qualified immunity, and juror biases “against awarding money to a person convicted of a crime.”
Moreover, police departments aren’t quick to settle these cases. One scholar goes as far as declaring so-called ‘1983’ suits are not only “ineffective in deterring police brutality” but“are difficult and expensive to pursue” since most victims are minorities with few financial resources to hire lawyers for protracted litigation.
42 USC § 1988 enables a court to award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in civil rights cases. But Warren’s case settled without a verdict.
Moreover, I haven’t a clue about the fee agreement between Warren and his lawyers, for example, whether it was a contingent-fee contract where his lawyers received a gross recovery percentage, which would be offset by any court-awarded attorney’s fee — or whether or not his lawyers left money on the negotiation table — or how they handled the inherent conflicts of interest between them and their client. But no matter, all the disputants approved the settlement.
Sure I know lawyers personally and by reputation who advertise they “never earn more money than the client” or that they “NEVER charge more in Attorney fees than our client puts in pocket.” But those firms handle personal injury contingency-fee claims not civil rights actions like the one here.
So without more facts and better media explanations about the obstacles faced by civil rights plaintiffs, it’s hardly surprising Warren’s lawyers have been criticized.
Indeed, more than just criticism, the lawyers characterized some of it as harassment, noting in their statement, “Over the past 48 hours, my co-counsel and I have been harassed, called names and threatened by countless people via telephone calls, emails, and internet messages because of the settlement agreement that was disclosed this week. We have been called criminals, thugs, crooks, thieves, liars, cheats, and many other names.”
They conclude, “We represented Anthony Warren, absolutely. Just as important, though, we were extremely proud to represent the Constitutional rights of every person in this great country. We did this knowing that there was a very good chance that none of us would ever be compensated a dime for any of the hard work we put into the case because freedom and liberty are not just words to us, but they are instead actual rights that we are willing to fight for. Because we did so successfully, we are being demonized instead of thanked. That is fine. Attorneys have long been the butt of jokes, and I would expect nothing less from those with little knowledge of the actual terms and circumstances. Regardless, Mr. Warren and his family know the terms of the agreement, and they were very pleased with the outcome. We are all extremely proud to have represented Anthony Warren and the U.S. Constitution in this case.”
But unfortunately for Warren’s protesting lawyers, given the usual tide of Internet meanness and anything anonymously goes, the tiny violins will unsympathetically play on.
Photo Credits: No Name #4, by David Mican at Flickr Attribution; world’s smallest violin, blingee.com.