I get at least three calls a week from folks who think their civil rights have been violated and want me to take their case. "Cause" might be a better description than case for the most part. So why is it so tough to get an attorney to take a civil rights case? Here are my Top 4 Reasons Most Civil Rights Cases Can’t Find A Lawyer.
Reason number one – your civil rights have not been violated. The average person has a very broad view of his or her civil rights, much broader than provided for under the law. That view is almost always broader than the jury’s view! In general, you have a civil rights case if someone, acting under color of state law deprives you of a personal right protected and guaranteed by the United States Constitution or a federal law. The most common personal rights include freedom of speech, the right to vote, due process of law, equal protection, and unlawful discrimination. Civil rights laws apply to persons acting under color of state law, and even that part is tricky. Sometimes a city or agency can be a "person" but not always. Civil rights cases often involve police brutality claims, and claims against employers who retaliate against a public employee for some reason – like the cop in Chicago who won $900,000 against his former boss for retaliating against him when he tried to investigate police corruption. One of my Trial Lawyers College Classmates represents firefighters who have suffered from sexual harassment and retaliation. These types of cases have civil rights components.
Reason number two – the government has immunity from much of the stuff that otherwise would be a civil rights case. Immunity comes in two varieties – absolute and qualified. So, you cannot sue the judge who treated you poorly during a trial. He or she likely has immunity that protects him or her from a lawsuit. The same is generally true with law enforcement officers, unless you can show that they acted with reckless indifference to you. Their immunity is likely not absolute – but qualified immunity may also keep you from collecting, if it applies.
Reason number three – your damages may not be enough to merit filing a lawsuit. OK – let’s say that the cops locked you up for a day and that it was otherwise a violation of your civil rights (assume – due process). What money damages did you incur? Often when I ask this question the answer is "I lost a day’s wages." Civil rights cases, like every other civil case, requires a weighing of damages and liability against the time required to prevail. If the damages are not high enough to attract an attorney – good for you! You may have gotten a bad deal, but the harm did not likely ruin you.
Reason number four – these cases are incredibly complex and very tough to win. Jurors want to trust the folks we end up suing in these cases. So winning a judgment requires a lot of time and commitment by the trial lawyer. Years ago I tried a case in which my client (a deputy) had not been given a hearing before he was fired. An inmate under his supervision had killed himself, and the city blamed my guy because he had not apparently checked on the deceased every 15 minutes. I spent so much time on the case that by the day of trial I literally wished I had not taken it. I burned thousands of hours before we even got to pick the jury! In the end we won the case – but the difficulty of the case weighed on me for years. It is easier to run a race on a sunny day than in the mud and rain! And I felt wet and muddy after that "victory." On an hourly basis, my ultimate recovery worked out to about $10 an hour for all the time I spent.
So there they are – My Top 4 Reasons Most Civil Rights Cases Can’t Find A Lawyer. Of course having said that – if you really HAVE a civil rights case maybe we can take your case. Got a question about your civil rights? Send us a comment or call us to talk about your situation. We fight to protect your civil rights here in Boise, Idaho or wherever you may be.