Due in part to the efforts of the Detroit-based law firm Honigman, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed a 2021 Court of Appeals decision and ruled that courts cannot reduce attorney fee awards solely because lawyers work on a pro bono basis.
The ruling puts Michigan in accord with every other state and federal court that had considered the issue, all of which rejected the notion that fee awards may be reduced where attorneys donate their services.
The Honigman team included Robert M. Riley, Rian C. Dawson, and Scott B. Kitei. Several groups filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Honigman’s position, including the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, the Michigan Association for Justice, the State Bar of Michigan, Michigan State Planning Body, Legal Services Association of Michigan, and Disability Rights Michigan.
The consolidated cases stemmed from Freedom of Information Act requests by freelance journalists Spencer Woodman and George Joseph, who sought audio and video recordings from the Michigan Department of Corrections related to the 2016 death of a prison inmate.
When the Department of Corrections denied their requests, Woodman and Joseph sought legal assistance from the ACLU of Michigan, which in turn recruited Honigman as pro bono cooperating counsel.
The Court of Claims ultimately ruled that Woodman and Joseph were entitled to all of their requested audio and video recordings and that, as prevailing parties, were entitled to attorneys’ fees under the Freedom of Information Act. The Court of Claims awarded the ACLU of Michigan all its fees, but reduced Honigman’s fees by 90 percent solely because Honigman worked pro bono. The Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.
The Supreme Court’s ruling now ensures that pro bono counsel is treated the same as their paid counterparts and encourages lawyers to represent those otherwise unable to afford access to justice.
“For the ACLU of Michigan and other nonprofit organizations like it, as well as private sector law firms that provide pro bono legal counsel to support important public interest work, it is vital that attorneys’ fees be recoverable in cases involving civil rights, civil liberties, and government transparency,” says Dan Korobkin, legal director of ACLU of Michigan. “This is a major victory for organizations and individuals in Michigan who provide pro bono legal services, and we’re grateful to the team at Honigman for their counsel and partnership.”
Following the ruling for the Michigan pro bono legal community, Honigman will be donating all of its fees from these cases to the ACLU of Michigan.