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Attorney Spouse Can Collect Fees in Civil Rights Lawsuit

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Regardless of the lure of being featured in an Above the Law wedding post, there are plenty of reasons to avoid marrying a lawyer: We can be both overly precise and utterly evasive, we’re argumentative, and we work terrible hours.

One of the few obvious perks of marrying someone with an Esq. suffix is the free legal counsel. Now, following a Ninth Circuit decision last week, that free legal counsel can also yield attorney’s fees awards to supplement a couple’s joint income.

In Rickley v. County of Los Angeles, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a district court had erred in denying appellant Rebecca Rickley an award of attorney's fees for her spouse's legal services.

Rickley and Natasha Roit, both attorneys, are legally married and co-own a home in a Malibu area prone to landslides. Since at least 2001, Rickley and Roit have been complaining to Los Angeles County regarding two of their neighbors' illegal construction and land use.

After the County failed to stop the violations, Rickley and Roit, as co-plaintiffs, brought a civil action and won a permanent injunction against the neighbors. The County still refused to act on the building code violations, so Rickley, as sole plaintiff, brought a civil rights lawsuit against the County.

Rickley and the County eventually reached a settlement that reserved the determination of attorney's fees and costs to the district court. As the prevailing party, Rickley filed a motion to recover $145,930 in attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, including $124,510 for the legal work performed by lead attorney Roit and $21,420 for work performed by co-counsel Christopher L. Campbell. The district court granted Rickley's request for attorney's fees for Campbell in the amount of $13,770, but denied the request with respect to Roit.

On review, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court improperly applied Kay v. Ehrler and Ford v. Long Beach Unified School District to the attorney's fees determination in Rickley's case, and awarded Rickley attorney's fees for Roit's legal services.

Judge Raymond Fisher, writing for the court, noted, "we see no reason to presume that attorney-spouses are, as a general proposition, 'unable to provide independent, dispassionate legal advice.' There is therefore no basis for a bright-line prohibition on awarding fees to successful civil rights plaintiffs who are represented by their attorney-spouses."

Heads up, attorney power couples: Your better half needs to file the civil rights lawsuit on your behalf if you want to collect those attorney's fees like the plaintiff in Rickley v. County of Los Angeles. If you can't decide which one of you should represent the other, we suggest paper-rock-scissors; an in-depth evaluation of your win-loss records could result in a sleepless night on the sofa.

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