New Supreme Court Attorney’s Fees Decision: Lefemine v. Wideman
The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, provides that prevailing plaintiffs in § 1983 and other civil rights cases (excluding prisoners who are separately covered by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995) are ordinarily entitled to a reasonable attorney’s fee unless special circumstances render such an award unjust. So the threshold question is whether the plaintiff has prevailed.
Under § 1988, it has long been clear that a plaintiff who recovers damages or obtains meaningful injunctive relief is a prevailing plaintiff. See §§ 10:4-10:11 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2012)(CIVLIBLIT on Westlaw). But every so often federal courts need to be reminded of the obvious.
Lefemine v. Wideman, 81 U.S.L.W. 4005 (11-5-2012)(per curiam)
In this case, the Fourth Circuit held (PDF) that “a plaintiff who secured a permanent injunction but no monetary damages was not a ‘prevailing party’ under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, and so could not receive fees.” Reversing (PDF), the Supreme Court declared: “That was error [b]ecause the injunction ordered the defendant officials to change their behavior in a way that directly benefited the plaintiff.”
The plaintiff, an anti-abortion demonstrator who displayed signs with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, sued county law enforcement officers under § 1983 and the First Amendment for nominal damages and declaratory and injunctive relief in connection with past and planned future demonstrations. The district court found that the defendants had previously violated the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. The district court also permanently enjoined the defendants from engaging in content-based discrimination based on the signs with the pictures. But the district court denied nominal damages on the ground that the defendants were protected by qualified immunity. The district court further denied the plaintiff attorney’s fees based on “the totality of the facts,” and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that the injunction did not alter the relationship between the parties, as required for prevailing party status. The plaintiff sought certiorari in the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the Fourth Circuit’s judgment and remanded, all without merits briefs and oral argument. According to the Court’s per curiam opinion, the plaintiff was clearly a prevailing party because he wanted to conduct demonstrations with signs that the defendants had told him he could not carry. He had sued in order to protect himself from the defendants’ threats against him, and he was successful. “[T]hat ruling worked the requisite material alteration in the parties’ relationship. … [A]fter the ruling, the police could not prevent him from demonstrating in that manner.”
Lefemine is an easy case. You have to wonder what the Fourth Circuit was thinking.
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