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Judge awards Sines v. Kessler plaintiffs' attorneys $4.9 million

The attorneys who won a civil rights action against the organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville have been awarded $4.9 million in expenses and legal fees.

United States Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe signed documents approving these awards March 7.

New York-based attorneys Roberta Kaplan and Karen Dunn had sought $12.73 million in legal fees plus $1.82 million in expenses, much of which went to a vendor collecting digital information from electronic devices and social media accounts.

“Enforcing the Virginia hate-crime statute’s fee-shifting provision in this case, intended by the legislature to act as a deterrent, would not only signal to future bad actors that they should think twice before engaging in similar violent misconduct motivated by racial and religious animus, but would signal to future victims of such illegal conduct that the risk of vindicating their rights under the statute is one worth taking,” Kaplan and Dunn wrote in seeking the compensation.

Hoppe’s ruling gives Kaplan and Dunn a portion of what they sought: $3.2 million in legal fees plus another $1.7 million in expenses.

One topic Hoppe seemed to wrestle with was the concept of whether and how much to make the fee awards when portions of the case were not successful. The jury deadlocked on two claims; in others, they awarded nominal or no compensatory damages.

“I think he’s honoring what the General Assembly wanted,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told the Daily Progress. “I think he’s on pretty solid ground.”

Tobias noted that Virginia typically doesn’t allow attorney fees except in certain contractual and, in this case, civil rights claims.

The judge’s action comes a little over two months after another judge, in accordance with Virginia law, slashed millions from the damage awards that a federal jury awarded a year earlier.

At the end of a 22-day civil trial in November, 2021, a federal jury found that 17 defendants including lead organizer Jason Kessler engaged in a civil conspiracy and awarded about $26 million in damages. However, in late December, 2022, Judge Norman K. Moon trimmed the punitive damages portion of that award from $24 million to $350,000.

This case took four years to come to trial. Along the way, some of the defendants refused to participate. One became a fugitive after an arrest warrant was issued, another was briefly jailed in an effort to get him to comply with discovery requirements. There were six default judgments. Several defendants claimed to be indigent.

While neither side was reached for an interview Monday, law professor Tobias notes that the law appears to be on the side of the plaintiffs and their attorneys in the matter of collections.

“If they can find assets, then they can levy on them,” said Tobias. “Virginia law is pretty clear on that.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the defendants as the plaintiffs in two instances.


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