Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—December 27

1988—In Blum v. Witco Chemical Corp., federal district judge H. Lee Sarokin reconsiders whether to enhance an attorney’s fee award by a multiplier to compensate plaintiffs’ attorneys for the risk they had undertaken in handling the case on a contingency-fee basis. The Third Circuit had rejected Sarokin’s previous adoption of a 20% enhancement and had provided him extensive instructions on the daunting task of making sense of Justice O’Connor’s controlling concurring opinion in an intervening Supreme Court case on contingency enhancement. (Several years later, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, will conclude that O’Connor’s approach cannot “intelligibly be applied,” as it rules that contingency enhancements are never permissible.)

Sarokin complains that the “Supreme Court has sent a Christmas gift to this court delivered via the Third Circuit” (the Third Circuit decision was actually rendered in early September) and that “the instructions are so confusing and inconsistent that this court has been unable to put the ‘gift’ together.” He states that he “fears” that the Supreme Court and Third Circuit “have designed an erector set from which no attorney will ever be able to build a valid claim for a contingency enhancement.” “Reading between the lines” of the higher-court opinions, he states that “one may conclude that multipliers or other enhancers are so disfavored as to be virtually non-existent.” But, stating his own view that “enhancers should be the rule and not the exception,” Sarokin then somehow proceeds to award a 50% enhancement—2-1/2 times higher than his original multiplier.

On review, the Third Circuit disallows the multiplier. In her unanimous panel opinion, Judge Sloviter (a Carter appointee, as it happens) sets forth what could be an appropriate epitaph for Sarokin’s entire judicial career: “the district court, without concealing its disapproval of both the Supreme Court’s decision and ours, proceeded in accordance with its own views.” Sloviter proceeds to document how Sarokin “applied the incorrect legal standard” in “at least four respects essential to [his] decision.” 

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