November 5, 2012
Supreme Court Action: Who Is The Prevailing Party Under §1988 For An Award of Attorney's Fees
The first Supreme Court opinion for the current term appeared this morning. The case is LeFemine v. Wildmon (12-168). The case concerns the award of attorney fees under 42 U.S.C. §1988. The question raised is the type of case result that triggers designating someone as the prevailing party and thus the award.
LeFemine demonstrated with others in Greenword County, South Carolina. They carried signs with pictures of aborted fetuses. Police told LeFemine that the group would be ticketed for breach of peace if the signs were not discarded. The group objected on First Amendment grounds but disbanded. They wrote to the Sheriff a year later to inform him that they intended to resume protesting. The Sheriff responded by saying his department would respond in the same way.
LeFemine sued for an injunction, nominal money damages, a declaratory judgment, and attorney’s fees. The District Court held that LeFemine’s First Amendment rights and entered an injunction. There was no award of fees as the judge held the defendants had qualified immunity. The Fourth Circuit upheld the denial of attorney’s fees on the basis that LeFemine did not receive any money damages.
The Supreme Court reversed. The Court said the 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.” There are some exceptions to this when special circumstances occur. The Court sent the case back for further proceedings to determine whether any of these existed in this case. [MG]