Hot Docs: Supreme Court helps decipher when a prevailing party actually prevails

November 22, 2012

SCOTUS picks a winnerThe Supreme Court is called upon to consider many difficult legal questions during any given term.

Sometimes, they decide to resolve an easy one.

Such a case is Lefemine v. Wideman, which the Court issued its decision on earlier this month.

The case begins in 2005, when Steven Lefemine and members of Columbia Christians for Life (CCL) were conducting an anti-abortion demonstration.

As part of this demonstration, CCL were holding up graphic signs depicting photographs of aborted fetuses.

Citing complaints about these signs, a police officer informed Lefemine that if the signs were not discarded, he would be ticketed for breach of the peace.

Although Lefemine objected, insisting that such would be a violation of his First Amendment free speech rights, he eventually relented and the demonstration was disbanded.

A year later, an attorney for Lefemine sent a letter to the county sheriff, informing him of the group’s intention to return to the same site with the disputed signs, and that any further interference from the police would cause Lefemine to pursue “all available legal remedies.”

The police responded by stating that “should we observe any protester or demonstrator committing the same act, we will again conduct ourselves in exactly the same manner: order the person(s) to stop or face criminal sanctions.”

Because of this threat, no demonstration took place in the county for the next two years.

In 2008, Lefemine filed suit against the police under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that his First Amendment rights were violated and seeking “nominal damages, a declaratory judgment, a permanent injunction, and attorney’s fees.”

Both parties moved for summary judgment, but the court granted Lefemine’s, finding that the defendants had infringed on Lefemine’s rights, and issued a permanent injunction preventing the police “from engaging in content-based restrictions on [Lefemine’s] display of graphic signs” under similar circumstances.

Hot Doc: Lefemine v. Wideman

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

The court denied Lefemine’s request for nominal damages, however, finding that the police were entitled to qualified immunity.

The last thing that Lefemine requested – attorney’s fees – is where the trouble started.

To recover attorney’s fees in a § 1983 action, you must be a “prevailing party.”

According to the district court and the court of appeals, Lefemine did not “prevail.”

The appeals court gave a much more detailed explanation than the district court, which simply held that “[u]nder the totality of the facts in this case the award of attorney’s fees is not warranted.”

According to the appeals court, since the injunction only forced the police department to follow the law as it already existed,* the relief awarded did not alter “the relative positions of the parties” (as required by Fourth Circuit precedent), and, thus, Lefemine did not “prevail.”

The Supreme Court didn’t agree, and reversed the Fourth Circuit in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

Specifically, the opinion cited earlier Supreme Court precedent that held that a party “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 found that Lefemine was a prevailing party under this definition, since, thanks to the district court’s decision, he was able to protest with his signs without police interference.

Under the appeals court’s logic, unless an injunction is completely venturing into new legal territory, a party that secures a permanent injunction never “prevails.”

Although this may seem like a clear screw-up on the appeals court’s part, they should get cut some slack.

Since they were bound to follow the “abuse of discretion” standard when reviewing the district court’s decision, the appeals court would have to make a finding that the district court’s conclusions are based on “mistaken legal principles or clearly erroneous factual findings.”

Since the district court gave the appeals court very little to review, there wasn’t much to make a finding of an abuse of discretion (although, instead of just inferring the district court’s rationale for denying attorney’s fees, the appeals court should have remanded it for a full explanation of the denial).

In any case, it’s a good thing the Supreme Court was there to step in and clarify when a winning party actually wins.

*The injunction prohibited the police “from engaging in content-based restrictions on Plaintiff’s display of graphic signs without narrowly tailoring its restriction to serve a compelling state interest,”