The Online Resource for Massachusetts Poverty Law Advocates

Hutchinson v. Patrick -- Attorneys fees awarded

Date: 
02/17/2011
Author: 
Selya, First Circuit, U.S. Court of Appeals

District Court (Judge Michael Ponsor) ordered substantial attorneys fees award for settlement in brain injury class action on February 8, 2010.  The District Court decision interpreted the First Circuit's Aronov v. Napolitano holding, and concluded that the settlement agreement, in combination with the order approving the agreement, constituted a sufficient judicial imprimatur to entitle the plaintiffs to fees.

The First Circuit upheld the plaintiffs as the prevailing party based on court approval of a settlement agreement that the parties stipulated was not a consent decree, and upheld the lower court fee award of $750,000.

Attached below are

  • the District Court decision
  • the First Circuit decision
  • the primary Appellate brief
  • an Amicus brief.

The following is an analysis of the issue discussed in the amicus brief: 

The sole issue our amicus brief discussed was whether the court-approved settlement agreement in Hutchinson had "judicial imprimatur" sufficient to entitle the plaintiffs to an award of fees as "prevailing parties" under the ADA. The question was "whether the order contains the sort of judicial involvement and actions inherent in a 'court ordered consent decree,'" Aronov, 562 F.3d 84, 90 (1st Cir. 2009) (en banc), which "can only be determined by determining the content of the order against the entire context before the court," id. at 92. The court considered three factors: (1) whether the change in the legal relationship between the parties was "court-ordered," (2) whether there was "judicial approval of the relief vis-a-vis the merits of the case," and (3) whether there exists continuing "judicial oversight and ability to enforce the obligations imposed on the parties." Opinion at 11-12.

The court first concluded that the settlement agreement was "court-ordered" because the settlement agreement was, by its terms, of no force and effect without court approval. Id. at 12. Next, the court determined that, because the case was a class action and therefore the district court had to find that the settlement agreement was "fair, reasonable, and adequate" before approving it, the district court engaged in an analysis "strikingly similar" to deciding whether a consent decree was "fair and not unlawful" and could be approved. Id. at 13. Finally, the settlement agreement embodied an obligation to comply and judicial oversight to enforce that obligation because (1) the district court retained jurisdiction over the case, (2) the case was ordered not to be closed pending compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement, (3) the settlement agreement itself conferred broad enforcement authority on the district court, and (4) the settlement agreement could only be modified with court approval. Id. at 14-15.

Note that in footnote 3, the court concluded that "the mere fact that a settlement is subject to court approval does not in itself supply the necessary ingredients for prevailing party status. It is the presence of continuing judicial oversight that pushes the ball across the goal line and thus suffices to give a settlement the required judicial imprimatur." Id. at 16 n.3 (emphasis in original). With Hutchinson, civil rights litigants (especially in class actions) will be able to obtain attorney's fees by incorporating judicial enforcement in the settlement agreement itself, even if the court does not enter a consent decree.  

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