Harry D. Leinenweber
Harry D. Leinenweber

A federal judge on Wednesday awarded more than $391,000 in attorney fees to the city of Chicago in its successful battle against the Trump administration’s attempt to withhold public safety funds.

U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber made the award in litigation sparked by the Trump administration’s demand that the city help enforce civil immigration law in order to receive funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant.

The city sued the federal government twice — first in August 2017 and then in October 2018 — after the Justice Department imposed immigration-related conditions on the receipt of Byrne JAG funds for fiscal year 2017 and then for fiscal year 2018.

In July 2018 and again in September 2019, Leinenweber held the Justice Department had overstepped its bounds by adding new requirements to legislation passed by Congress.

In his ruling in the 2017 suit, Leinenweber enjoined the federal government from imposing conditions on the receipt of Bryne JAG funds for that fiscal year. He issued a permanent injunction in the 2018 suit covering funds for fiscal 2018 and all future years.

In March 2020, the city filed a motion for attorney fees in the 2018 suit.

In his opinion Wednesday, Leinenweber awarded a total of $391,168 in attorney fees to the two law firms that represented the city.

Leinenweber awarded $18,584 to Chicago’s local counsel, Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP.

He awarded $372,583 to Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP. Attorneys in WilmerHale’s Washington, D.C., and New York offices represented the city in the litigation.

In July 2017, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced municipalities would have to meet certain requirements to receive Byrne JAG funds for fiscal 2017.

The conditions were aimed at Chicago and other sanctuary cities. As a sanctuary city, Chicago refuses to turn over undocumented foreign nationals not suspected of serious crimes to immigration authorities for deportation.

The conditions would have required police to give Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents advance notice before a noncitizen was released from custody and to allow those agents unrestricted access to police stations and lockups.

Another condition would have required jurisdictions to certify their compliance with federal laws that bar local governments from restricting the sharing of immigration status information with immigration authorities.

Although Leinenweber enjoined the Justice Department from imposing those conditions on the receipt of fiscal 2017 Byrne JAG funds, the department imposed them and additional conditions on the receipt of fiscal 2018 funds.

That action led the city to file its 2018 suit and, later, its motion for attorney fees.

In his opinion, Leinenweber wrote the “American Rule” calls for parties to litigation to pay their own attorney fees.

But there is an exception in the Equal Access to Justice Act, he wrote.

Quoting the act, Leinenweber wrote a court may award attorney fees “to the prevailing party in any civil action brought by or against the United States” to the same extent a party in litigation not involving the government would be entitled to receive.

And a prevailing party may be awarded attorney fees if the opposing party has “acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive reasons,” Leinenweber wrote, quoting Chambers v. NASCO Inc., 501 U.S. 32 (1991).

Citing Mach v. Will County Sheriff, 580 F.3d 495 (7th Cir. 2009), he acknowledged that “[t]here is no bright-line rule for what constitutes bad faith.”

But actions taken before litigation is initiated can form the basis of a finding of bad faith, Leinenweber wrote.

He limited the injunction in the 2017 case to that fiscal year, Leinenweber wrote, in part because the Justice Department assured him it would consider his ruling in imposing conditions on the receipt of fiscal 2018 funds.

But the Justice Department acted in bad faith when it made “a tactical decision to impose meritless conditions” on the fiscal 2018 funds, Leinenweber wrote.

He wrote this forced the city to relitigate the conditions.

“The Attorney General cannot be allowed to cause Chicago to file repeated suits to defend against the Government’s meritless imposition of immigration-related JAG award conditions,” Leinenweber wrote.

The case is The City of Chicago v. Merrick B. Garland, No. 18 C 6859.

Attorneys with the Chicago Law Department who represent the city include Andrew W. Worseck and Justin Anthony Houppert.

“We are pleased with this outcome and that the district court recognized that the former Attorney General of the United States made a bad-faith tactical decision when he reimposed conditions that the courts had enjoined as unlawful,” Law Department spokeswoman Kristen Cabanban said in a statement.

“As the court made clear, the former AG ‘abused the judicial process, and needlessly increased the City’s litigation costs.’”

The federal government is represented by Charles E.T. Roberts, Daniel D. Mauler and W. Scott Simpson, all of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department could not be reached for comment.