Officer’s $1.00 Victory Does Not Merit Attorney Fees

Anthony Robinson worked as a campus police officer for the University of Illinois at Chicago Police Department. He sued his supervisor, Alfred Perales, and the UIC Board of Trustees for unlawful retaliation based on racial discrimination. Robinson is part African-American and Perales is Hispanic. Robinson alleged that in 2012, Perales inquired about Robinson’s failure to shave in accordance with the Department’s grooming policy. Robinson explained that it was the result of a skin condition for which he had a doctor’s note indicating he should not shave. At some later point, Perales commented on Robinson’s face: “Oh, I can see, it must be the nigger in you.”

Robinson filed a formal grievance about the remark, and the Department issued a suspension to Perales. Robinson claimed that after his discipline, Perales began to follow him and to scrutinize his behavior and performance heavily relative to other officers. For example, Perales would tail Robinson’s car while Robinson was both on and off duty, although Robinson was unable to recall the exact dates of any specific instances. A sergeant indicated that Perales called him into his office one day during the relevant timeframe and told him that the supervisors needed to stick together, and that officers like Robinson were “a threat to all of us.” The sergeant later testified that Perales instructed him to “get some shit on Robinson and write him up.”

When a federal court jury awarded Robinson $1.00 in damages against Perales, he petitioned for an award of attorney fees. The Court declined Robinson’s request.

The Court noted that “the Supreme Court has indicated that an award of attorneys’ fees to a prevailing plaintiff may be improper when a plaintiff obtains a judgment but nevertheless achieves only partial or limited success. Fees may be particularly inappropriate in civil rights litigation when a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief.

“That is the case with Robinson. His success was limited, to put it mildly. First, the Court dismissed several of his claims against the Defendants on summary judgment, and dismissed a second plaintiff from the case entirely. Next, a jury vindicated the Board, and entered judgment against Perales, awarding Robinson only $1.00. To demonstrate the disparity between what Robinson’s attorneys believed the claims were worth and what the jury awarded, during closing arguments, Robinson’s counsel suggested that the jury should award anywhere between $50,000.00 to $300,000.00 in compensatory damages and up to $500,000.00 in punitive damages.

“The upshot is that Robinson won only .002% of the low end of his attorneys’ valuation of his claims’ worth. That’s a negligible amount, and the disparity between the plaintiff’s actual and expected recovery is the most important consideration. Further, the jury’s decision to absolve the Board and to find against Perales alone suggests this was a mere personal victory without any identifiable, broader import to the public. That fact also weighs heavily in favor of denying attorney fees.”

Robinson v. Perales, 2016 WL 4249172 (N.D. Ill. 2016).