Prevailing Parties

November 7, 2012

The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976 allows for recovery of reasonable attorney’s fees to “prevailing parties” in certain civil cases.  The Supreme Court , in a recent per curiam decision, clarified who a prevailing party is for purposes of recovery of attorney’s fees. See 2012 WL 5381602.

In Lefemine v. Wideman ,  Lefemine filed a § 1983 complaint against law enforcement alleging violations of First Amendment rights for being prevented from conducting anti-abortion demonstrations at street intersection with certain signage.  The district court found that the defendant  infringed plaintiff’s First Amendment rights,  enjoined the defendants from doing so in the future but declined to award nominal damages and attorney’s fees. Affirming the district court, the Fourth Circuit held that, a plaintiff who secures a permanent injunction but no monetary damages is not a “prevailing party” and could not receive fees. See 672 F.3d 292.

On appeal, the United States Supreme Court vacated the Fourth Circuit opinion and remanded the case. The Supreme Court quoting one of its earlier opinions stated that, “[a] plaintiff prevails … “when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant’s behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.”” The Court further stated that a non-monetary award such as injunctive or declaratory relief can be sufficient to alter the relationship between the parties.  It is not necessary to be awarded monetary damages to be considered a “prevailing party.” The Court reasoned that, “before the ruling, the police intended to stop Lefemine from protesting with his signs; after the ruling, the police could not prevent him from demonstrating in that manner,” thereby altering behavior that benefited plaintiff, making Lefemine a “prevailing party” eligible for attorney’s fees.

Research References:

For related case law, try this advanced search on WestlawNext.  The wp (words and phrases) field helps us identify case law where a court defines a given word of phrase:

wp(prevailing-party) /s injunct! enjoin!

What about declaratory judgments?

wp(prevailing-party) /s declaratory-judgment

Lefemine v. Wideman references:

Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976: § 1988. Proceedings in vindication of civil rights, 42 USCA § 1988

Supreme Court Opinion: Lefemine v. Wideman, 2012 WL 5381602

Fourth Circuit opinion: Lefemine v. Wideman, 672 F.3d 292

District Court opinion: Lefemine v. Davis, 732 F.Supp.2d 614

Case cited by the Supreme Court: Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111–112, 113 S.Ct. 566, 121 L.Ed.2d 494 (1992)