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PJC Files Amicus Brief on Attorney Fees In Discrimination Cases

On February 25, 2003, current Murnaghan Fellow Beth Mellen Harrison filed an amici curiae brief in Manor Country Club v. Betty Flaa, No. 111, Court of Appeals of Maryland, September Term 2004, on behalf of PJC, the ACLU of Maryland, and the D.C. Employment Justice Center.  The brief asks 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.  In this case, Betty Flaa won a ruling from the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights (MCOHR) finding that Manor Country Club was a place of public accommodations and had illegally discriminated against her on the basis of sex.  The MCOHR rejected her attorney’s fee petition, however, denying compensation for over 90 percent of the hours expended by Ms. Flaa’s counsel.  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.
The 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.  Because civil rights claims often involve small monetary amounts and predominantly injunctive claims, and because victims of discrimination often cannot afford to hire their own counsel, plaintiffs must rely on fee-shifting statutes to secure representation.  The lodestar method successfully attracts counsel for plaintiffs with meritorious civil rights claims, by ensuring compensation that is competitive under prevailing market standards.  The brief also argued that failing to apply the lodestar method to the fee-shifting provision under the Montgomery County Code would erode civil rights enforcement.  County anti-discrimination laws play a unique and vital role in effective civil rights enforcement in Maryland, providing a local forum for hundreds of claims every year and often extending to individuals and conduct not covered by the state civil rights laws. 

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