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Tutorial on Attorneys’ Fees in Civil Rights Cases


February 16, 2015 by Tom Roberts, Esq.

Tutorial on Attorneys’ Fees in Civil Rights Cases
Attorneys’ Fees are to be awarded to plaintiff if he obtains
an injunction, declaratory judgment or damages.


Attorneys’ Fees in civil rights cases should be awarded to the plaintiff if he prevails by effecting a material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties in a manner which Congress sought to promote in civil rights cases.


Section 1988 provides for attorneys’ fees to prevailing parties in civil-rights cases: “In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of section[] . . . 1983 . . . of this title, . . . the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney’s fee as part of the costs . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) (emphasis added). “The touchstone of the prevailing party inquiry must be the material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties in a manner which Congress sought to promote in the fee statute.” Tex. State Teachers Ass’n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792-93, 109 S. Ct. 1486, 103 L. Ed. 2d 866 (1989). Significant here, the Supreme Court has emphasized that “the prevailing party inquiry does not turn on the magnitude of the relief obtained.” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 114, 113 S. Ct. 566, 121 L. Ed. 2d 494 (1992). Sanchez v. City of Austin, 774 F.3d 873 (5th Cir. Tex. 2014).


The Supreme Court reiterated this point recently in Lefemine v. Wideman 133 S. Ct. 9, 11, 184 L. Ed. 2d 313 (2012) (per curiam) (quoting Farrar, 506 U.S. at 111-12) when it explained that a plaintiff prevails “‘when actual relief on the merits of [the plaintiff’s] 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 continued that it has “repeatedly held that an injunction or declaratory judgment, like a damages award, will usually satisfy that test.” Id. (citing Rhodes v. Stewart, 488 U.S. 1, 4, 109 S. Ct. 202, 102 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1988) (per curiam)). The Court thus concluded that the plaintiffs in Lefemine, who had not obtained nominal damages, but instead had obtained a permanent injunction against the defendant police officers for violations of their First Amendment rights, were prevailing parties under § 1988. Id. at 10-11. The Court rejected the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning that a denial of fees was appropriate because the injunction merely ordered the defendants to comply with the law and because no other damages were awarded. Id. at 11. The Court then remanded for the lower courts to conduct the special-circumstances inquiry to determine whether “there may be other grounds on which the police officers could contest liability for fees.” Id. at 12.


Special Circumstances


Under § 1988, “a prevailing party should ordinarily recover an attorney’s fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429, 103 S. Ct. 1933, 76 L. Ed. 2d 40 (1983).  The special-circumstances exception is narrow.  The judicial interpretation and its legislative history have constrained courts discretion converting the statute’s “may” into a “must.” Sanchez v. City of Austin., at 15 Indeed, “in [the] absence of special circumstances a district court not merely ‘may’ but must award fees to the prevailing plaintiff.” Indep. Fed’n of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 761, 109 S. Ct. 2732, 105 L. Ed. 2d 639 (1989) (interpreting Title VII’s nearly identical fee provision).


A prevailing plaintiff’s degree of success is not a special circumstance that justifies a complete denial of § 1988 fees. Instead, “the degree of the plaintiff’s overall success goes to the reasonableness of the award under Hensley, not to the availability of a fee award vel non.” Tex. State Teachers Ass’n, 489 U.S. at 793; cf. City of Riverside v. Rivera, 477 U.S. 561, 574, 106 S. Ct. 2686, 91 L. Ed. 2d 466 (1986) (“We reject the proposition that fee awards under § 1988 should necessarily be proportionate to the amount of damages a civil rights plaintiff actually recovers.”).


It is true that the Court in Farrar stated that, “[i]n some circumstances, even a plaintiff who formally ‘prevails’ under § 1988 should receive no attorney’s fees at all.” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 115 S. Ct. 566, 121 L. Ed. 2d 494 (1992), The Court clarified, however, that a plaintiff who formally prevails, yet should receive zero fees, is one “who seeks compensatory damages but receives no more than nominal damages.” Id. Thus, “[i]n a civil rights suit for damages, . . . the awarding of nominal damages also highlights the plaintiff’s failure to prove actual, compensable injury.” Id. (emphasis added)


You need experienced counsel.  You should contact a lawyer with the law firm of Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, P.C. today.   Call 804-783-2000

Thomas H. Roberts, Esq.
Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, P.C.
105 S 1st Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219
(804) 783-2000
(804) 783-2105 fax



 The materials are prepared for information purposes only.  The materials are not legal advice.  You should not act upon the information without seeking the advice of an attorney.  Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship.



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