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Silent settlement doesn't include fees, costs

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A federal judge rejected a northern Indiana sheriff's argument that a settlement agreement in a civil rights case includes attorney's fees and costs when the agreement doesn't say anything on the issue.

In a Dec. 30 order from Chief Judge Robert L. Miller Jr. of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division, St. Joseph County Sheriff Frank Canarecci Jr. claimed a $75,000 settlement reached between the sheriff and the relatives of a jail inmate who killed himself included attorney's fees for the plaintiffs even though the settlement stated nothing about the matter.

Relatives of inmate Gregory Zick sued Canarecci and 26 other defendants in 2005 after Zick committed suicide while in jail in 2003. Summary judgment was granted to all the defendants on the federal claims, except for an Eighth Amendment claim against Canarecci. The parties settled in the summer of 2009 before the issue went to trial. Cathy Minix and Steven Zick, Gregory Zick's mother and brother, filed a motion for nearly $745,000 in attorney's fees and costs.

Chief Judge Miller denied Canarecci's motion to strike in Cathy Minix and Steven Zick v. Sheriff Frank Canarecci Jr., et al., No. 3:05-CV-144, because there was no evidence the parties' settlement was intended to include attorney's fees and costs. Canarecci argued that a court could assume a settlement agreement in a civil rights case that didn't spell out attorney's fees and costs automatically included them in the settlement. Chief Judge Miller noted the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to take up this question.

"To assume that an agreement such as this one was meant to include attorney's fees and costs would run counter to Congress' policy of awarding attorney's fees to private attorneys general," wrote Judge Miller.

The judge also rejected the request for almost $750,000 in attorney's fees and costs because the plaintiffs' application fell below the level of specificity required by Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 434. The plaintiffs weren't specific enough in the amount of hours worked by the attorneys or expert witness fees on only the Eighth Amendment claim. Chief Judge Miller allowed the plaintiffs leave to re-file their motion within 10 days of the order "with a more reasonable request and with more reliable yardsticks by which the court may determine their award."

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