US Supreme Court and Paralegals

Seldom does a professional association or occupational group have an opportunity to address the United States Supreme Court to advance the career field. NALA has been fortunate to have participated in two cases before the US Supreme Court and, indeed, the paralegal profession has benefited from this participation. Both cases were on the recoverability of paralegal fees in attorney fee awards.

Missouri v. Jenkins, 1989
The first instance in which the US Supreme Court addressed the recoverability of paralegal fees was under section 1988 of the Civil Rights Attorney's Fee Awards Act of 1976. In this case, the petitioner was seeking the award of attorney and paralegal fees after a lengthy litigation. The Court was asked whether the work of paralegals, law clerks and recent law graduates could be reimbursed at market rates, rather than their cost to attorneys (wages).

The Court recognized that everyone - attorneys, paralegal employees, and clients - benefits from the proper utilization of paralegals. In its opinion, the Court stated:

By encouraging the use of lower cost paralegals rather than attorneys wherever possible, permitting market-rate billing of paralegal hours "encourages cost-effective delivery of legal services and, by reducing the spiraling cost of civil rights litigation, furthers the policies underlying civil rights statutes.

Click here to read the Court's decision in this case. NALA filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. NALA's brief and occupational survey are mentioned in footnote 11 of the Court's opinion.

Richlin v. Chertoff, 2008
The question before the US Supreme Court in this case is very similar to that in Missouri v. Jenkins. However, instead of considering the award of paralegal fees under the Civil Rights Act, this time, the court was asked to review if paralegal fees could be reimbursed at market rates under the Equal Access to Justice Act. Citing the Court's decision in Missouri v. Jenkins the court again stated paralegal fees may be awarded at market rates. This is a particularly interesting case in that the Supreme Court only accepts a few cases for review each year.

Click here to read the Court's decision in this case.

Impact of These Decisions
The importance of these decisions cannot be overstated. Twice, the US Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether paralegal time may be reimbursed at market rates under fee shifting statutes. Twice, the Court has provided an unequivocal "yes." The Court has recognized the value of attorney utilization of paralegal services as a cost efficient way to deliver paralegal services. At the same time, the Court recognized paralegal time should be billed the same as other professional staff.