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Court of Appeals Rules in Sex Discrimination / Attorneys' Fees case

May 18, 2005

Manor Country Club v. Betty Flaa, 2005 WL 1159433 (Md. 2005).
In this sex discrimination case, the Public Justice Center, joined by the ACLU of Maryland and the D.C. Employment Justice Center, filed an amicus brief asking the Court to hold that whenever civil rights and other laws incorporate a fee-shifting provision with a “reasonable attorney’s fees” benchmark, a fee award must be based on the lodestar method.  This method of compensation, which was adopted by the Court of Appeals in Friolo v. Frankel, 373 Md. 501, 819 A.2d 354 (2003), compensates for the reasonable hours expended by an attorney based on a reasonable hourly rate.  On appeal, Manor Country Club argued that the lodestar approach need not be applied to an administrative anti-discrimination claim under the Montgomery County Code, because in addition to referencing the familiar benchmark of “reasonable attorney’s fees,” the County Code provision at issue lists several factors that must be considered in setting a reasonable fee award.  PJC’s brief argued that fee-shifting statutes in general, and application of the lodestar method in particular, are essential to effective civil rights enforcement, particularly for lower-income victims of discrimination.  
On May 18, 2005, the Court of Appeals reversed the Court of Special Appeals, holding that the Montgomery County Code provision at issue in this case provided sufficient criteria for calculating an attorney’s fee award, thus obviating strict application of the lodestar method. The Court distinguished Friolo, describing that case as simply “indicat[ing] a general approval of the [lodestar] approach” where an attorney’s fees statute does not provide any criteria for determining the fee award.  Fortunately, the decision appears to be limited to statutes that provide express criteria for making a fee award.

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