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FYI: Lawyers for people who sue the government for civil rights violations and win policy changes through out-of-court settlements have the right to claim attorney fees, according to a Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling issued yesterday. The New York Legal Assistance Group sued the city in 1999 for improperly denying four plaintiffs public assistance. The city settled with NYLAG, agreeing to change its system of checking eligibility, but awarding no damages. The federal court that approved the settlement subsequently denied the plaintiff’s lawyers attorney fees, citing a 2001 Supreme Court decision that limited situations in which lawyers can claim attorney fees. NYLAG appealed, as several local legal assistance providers chimed in, noting that the ruling would stifle lawyers’ willingness to take civil rights cases on behalf of poor people. The appellate court agreed, ruling that, by winning a policy change through the suit, the lawyers have met the court’s definition of a “prevailing party” and thus qualify for the fees. [10/1/03]

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