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Prison Legal News prevails in 9th Circuit attorney fee ruling

Daily Journal, Jan. 1, 2010.
Prison Legal News prevails in 9th Circuit attorney fee ruling - Daily Journal 2010


© 2010 The Daily Journal Corporation.
All rights reserved.

June 21, 2010


By Sandra Hernandez

Daily Journal Staff Writer

Nearly four years after a monthly prison publication and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reached an agreement in an alleged censorship case, a federal appeals court ruled the newspaper is entitled to recover attorneys' fees for monitoring the settlement.

A three judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court 2008 ruling and ordered state authorities to pay $137,000 to Prison Legal News lawyers.

Writing on behalf of the panel, Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain said the "district court's determination was not an abuse of discretion," and found the rates are not "out of step with the rates charged by other in the relevant legal community."

The case involved a 2006 out-of-court agreement between state officials and Prison Legal News resolving allegations that prison officials violated the newspaper's First Amendment rights by inconsistent mail room policies that kept some California prisoners from receiving the publication. In a 2007 civil complaint, the publication said it resolved the allegations, but asked the court to retain jurisdiction of the case.

Alex Friedmann, an associate editor at Prison Legal News in Vermont, praised the June 9th decision.

"It's an important ruling because the court has affirmed that when the state enters into an agreement, the state can't just weasel its way out of it or adjust the terms," he said.

Friedmann said such fees are an important tool in attracting high powered legal help.

"Civil rights cases aren't big damages cases," he said. "If attorneys can't get their fees, they won't have an incentive to take them."

Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's office, said it is evaluating its options.

"The amount of fees and high hourly rates sought by the plaintiff's attorneys are unwarranted," Gasparac wrote in an e-mail. "We believe that the district court's jurisdiction should end."

The court remanded the case back to district court in Northern California to decide if state officials complied with the settlement and the court's jurisdiction should be terminated, as prison officials have requested.

Prison Legal News is a nonprofit publication with nearly 7,000 subscribers. The majority of these are located in California, said Friedman. The law firm of Rosen, Bien & Galvan, based in San Francisco, represented the publication.

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