Monday, November 5, 2012

Lefemine v. Wideman

Attorney's fees: permanent injunction but no monetary damages: this case concerns the award of attorney’s fees in a suit alleging unconstitutional conduct by government officials. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held 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. That was error. Because the injunction ordered the de­fendant officials to change their behavior in a way that directly benefited the plaintiff, we vacate the Fourth Circuit’s decision and remand for further proceedings; the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2641, 42 U. S. C. §1988, allows “the prevailing party” in certain civil rights actions, including suits brought under §1983, to recover “a reasonable attorney’s fee.” A plaintiff “prevails,” we have held, “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.” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U. S. 103, 111–112 (1992). And we have repeatedly held that an injunction or declaratory judgment, like a damages award, will usually satisfy that test. See, e.g., Rhodes v. Stewart, 488 U. S. 1, 4 (1988) (per curiam).
Under these established standards, Lefemine was a prevailing party. Lefemine desired to conduct demonstra­tions in Greenwood County with signs that the defendant police officers had told him he could not carry. He brought this suit in part to secure an injunction to protect himself from the defendants’ standing threat of sanctions. And he succeeded in removing that threat. The District Court held that the defendants had violated Lefemine’s rights and enjoined them from engaging in similar conduct in the future; because Lefemine is a “prevailing party,” he “should ordinarily recover an attorney’s fee unless special circum­stances would render such an award unjust.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U. S. 424, 429 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted). Neither of the courts below addressed whether any special circumstances exist in this case, and we do not do so; whether there may be other grounds on which the police officers could contest liability for fees is not a question before us. Accordingly, the petition for certiorari is granted, the judgment of the Fourth Circuit is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion (U.S. S. Ct., 05.11.12, Lefemine v. Wideman, Per Curiam).

Honoraires d'avocats: des dépens sont-ils dus si le Tribunal accorde non pas des dommages-intérêts mais ordonne à la partie adverse de s'abstenir d'un certain comportement ? Oui, dans les actions fondées sur la législation fédérale protégeant les droits civils. Le demandeur est en effet considéré comme une partie victorieuse à l'action, condition pour se voir accorder des dépens par le Tribunal. Les dépens ne seront pas accordés s'il existe des circonstances spéciales qui rendraient injuste leur attribution. La Cour ne précise pas ici quelles sont ces circonstances spéciales.

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