Judge denies attorney’s request for $123k in Clifford Twp. case
BY TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER
Times Shamrock Writer
A federal judge denied an attorney’s request for more than $123,000 for representing a former Clifford Twp. police chief awarded $1 in a civil rights case he filed against the township.
U.S. District Judge Malachy Mannion denied the request by attorney Cynthia Pollick of Pittston, saying the jury’s award of nominal damages in the case of Donald Carroll means she cannot collect any fee for the more than two years she worked on the case.
Carroll filed suit against the township and Supervisors Chris Marcho and Dennis Knowlton in 2012 in connection with their May 2012 decision to eliminate the Police Department and their refusal to sign a form that would allow him to join a police union. The suit claimed the supervisors took the action to retaliate against Carroll because he previously sued the township and had refused Marcho’s directive not to write traffic tickets on a street near his business.
Judge Mannion dismissed most of the claims in December, but allowed the claim relating to the police union application to proceed to trial. On March 12 a jury awarded Carroll $1 in compensatory damages and $30,000 in punitive damages against Marcho and Knowlton. But Judge Mannion overturned the jury’s punitive damages award in May, finding there was insufficient evidence to support the panel’s finding.
In his ruling, Judge Mannion said he did not believe the evidence showed Marcho and Knowlton acted with malice when they declined to sign the union application in February 2012. The judge noted the men testified they held off because they wanted to get an opinion from the township’s attorney. They were still awaiting that opinion when they decided in May to disband the police force for financial reasons, which they believed made the issue moot.
Under federal law an attorney who prevails in a civil rights case is entitled to be paid for each hour spent on the case, which is in addition to any damages the client receives. Pollick sought $89,875 in attorney’s fees plus $33,675 in other fees and costs, for a total of $123,550. She argued she was entitled to the fees because the jury found in Carroll’s favor, initially awarding him $30,001.
In a June 23 ruling, Judge Mannion denied the fee petition, citing prior court rulings that said the amount of fees an attorney can recover is tied to the amount of money awarded compared to the money that was sought. If there is a large gap between the two, the court can opt to withhold all attorney fees. A judge can also award attorney fees if the case involves a matter of great public importance.
In Carroll’s case, Judge Mannion noted Carroll had rejected a $25,000 offer to settle the case. Given that, he obtained only a “tiny fraction” of what he sought. The judge also found the case did not involve a matter of public importance because it involved a “technical” violation that had not caused Carroll any actual harm.
Contacted Monday, Pollick said she intends to appeal the ruling on the punitive damages award and denial of attorney fees to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.