Section 8 Residents Awarded Attorney's Fees, Incentive Payouts
Facts: In early 2013, federal government cuts in discretionary spending resulted in a $21 million reduction in funding for a local housing authority’s voucher program. To address this decrease in funding, the housing authority made significant revisions to its administration of the Section 8 program. For example, prior to March 1, 2013, “children of the opposite sex (unless they were very, very young children) and persons from different generations (parents, grandparents, children) were not required to share a room.” But after March 1, 2013, “the head of household (with spouse, co-head, Registered Domestic Partner, or boyfriend/girlfriend if any) [were assigned] one room and an additional bedroom [was assigned] for every two persons regardless of age or gender.” The revisions also included “revised calculations [that] increased each participant’s total tenant payment from 30% to 35% of their gross monthly income or $50 a month, whichever [was] higher.”
These changes resulted in many voucher holders receiving a smaller bedroom allocation and a smaller subsidy. Subsequent to these changes, some residents submitted a reasonable accommodation request for an additional bedroom based on at least one family member having a documented disability. The housing authority denied this request. And a group of these residents filed a class action lawsuit. Here, they asked the court to grant them attorney’s fees and incentive awards paid by the housing authority.
Ruling: A California district court granted the residents’ request for attorney’s fees. The court awarded $712,500 in attorney’s fees and costs, as well as $50,000 in named plaintiff incentive awards.
Reasoning: According to federal rules of civil procedure, “[I]n a certified class action, the court may award reasonable attorney’s fees and nontaxable costs that are authorized by law or by the parties’ agreement.” In civil rights cases, the court uses the lodestar method when calculating reasonable attorney’s fees. The lodestar method calculates fees based on the number of hours reasonably spent on litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.
Here, the case is a civil rights case and the requested amounts are pursuant to the terms of the settlement agreement. The court found that the education and experience of each attorney justified each of the requested rates. Also, when considering the quality of representation, the benefit obtained for the class, the complexity and novelty of the issues presented, and the risk of nonpayment, the court found that each factor weighed in favor of the requested fees.
With regard to the incentive payments to the named plaintiffs, the court considered the actions the plaintiffs have taken to protect the interests of the class, the degree to which the class has benefitted from those actions, the amount of time and effort the plaintiffs expended in pursuing the litigation, and reasonable fears of retaliation. According to the motion for attorney’s fees, the named plaintiffs have devoted substantial time to this case. All of the named plaintiffs were deposed and participated in two full days of settlement conferences. Additionally, the named plaintiffs took the important step of disclosing potentially embarrassing information about physical and mental disabilities, financial status, and homelessness. In doing so, they helped to obtain an important benefit for the class, including $3.2 million in damages and meaningful injunctive relief. In participating in this litigation, the plaintiffs also risked retaliation, because the housing authority had the power to reduce the subsidies or otherwise adversely affect their living situations.
- Huynh v. Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara, March 2017