The Supreme Court today unanimously overturned a Fourth Circuit decision that affirmed the denial of attorneys’ fees in a civil rights case. The Court in Lefemine v. Wideman vacated a Fourth Circuit decision that affirmed the denial of “prevailing party” attorney’s fees to a plaintiff who had secured declaratory and injunctive relief but no money damages.
Unanimous summary decisions like this one are a problem for any inferior court. Yet some courts deciding some issues seem more likely to result in such decisions (such as the Sixth Circuit operating under AEDPA or the Ninth Circuit examining qualified immunity). The Fourth Circuit has generally steered clear of this kind of unanimous overturning. What happened here?
It looks like the Fourth Circuit panel simply misapplied Supreme Court precedent, in large part because of an earlier circuit precedent (from 1993) that also (but without correction) misapplied Supreme Court precedent.
Today’s decision arose out of a First Amendment lawsuit brought by the leader of Columbia Christians for Life. The members of this organization carry signs that “depict aborted babies in order to shock the consciences of those who see the signs to the horror of abortion.” As part of a tour around South Carolina in 2005, approximately 20 Columbia Christians for Life one day were preaching, distributing anti-abortion literature, and carrying large, graphic anti-abortion signs at the busiest intersection in Greenwood County, South Carolina. The police intervened in response to complaints from passing motorists, telling group members that “they could continue to protest but they would either have to put away or take down the signs or . . . possibly be ticketed for breach of peace.” The protesters invoked the First Amendment, but were told that “you do not have a right to be offensive to other people in that manner.” The protesters packed up their signs and left. The next year, a lawyer for the group sent a letter to the Sheriff’s Office indicating that the group planned to protest in the same way and warning that interference with the protest would leave them “no choice but to pursue all available legal remedies.” The Sheriff’s Office responded that the Department would act the same way as in 2005. Subsequent demonstrations in 2006 and 2007 nevertheless “occurred without incident.” In 2008, the leader of Columbia Christians for Life filed suit against the Sheriff and some individual officers. The § 1983 complaint alleged violations of the First Amendment and sought damages, a declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief.
The district court held that Defendants had violated the First Amendment but were entitled to qualified immunity. The court did not award attorney’s fees but did enjoin Defendants “from engaging in content-based restrictions on Plaintiff’s display of graphic signs without narrowly tailoring its restriction to serve a compelling state interest.” The court also issued a declaratory judgment in favor of Plaintiff (although this was a bit muddled until the Fourth Circuit resolved the appeal).
Because no party on appeal challenged the district court’s merits ruling, the Fourth Circuit accepted for purposes of the appeal that “Defendants’ actions were an impermissible content-based restriction on Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights.”
The appeal involved three issues. Plaintiff (1) challenged the district court’s grant of qualified immunity, (2) argued that the district court abused its discretion by failing to rule on Plaintiff’s claim for declaratory relief, and (3) contended that he was entitled to an award of attorney’s fees.
The Fourth Circuit first affirmed the qualified immunity ruling.
The appeals court next decided that the district court did not abuse its discretion by failing to rule on the the request for declaratory relief. But the court decided this in a way that benefited the Plaintiff. Rather than defend the district court’s alleged failure to rule, the Fourth Circuit panel held that the district court actually did rule on the summary judgment request–in favor of Plaintiff. This portion of the panel opinion concludes: “[W]e can discern no abuse of discretion in the district court’s decision not to make the declaratory judgment more explicit, as Plaintiff unmistakably achieved judicial recognition that its constitutional rights had been violated.”
Finally, the panel affirmed the denial of attorney’s fees. This portion of the panel opinion was somewhat elliptical. The analysis is rather difficult to follow, but the key mistake was a misinterpretation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hewitt v. Helms, 428 U.S. 755 (1987). The panel described this as a case in which the Supreme Court “found that a judicial determination that a plaintiff’s civil rights had been violated, without more, was insufficient to render the plaintiff a ‘prevailing party’ and thereby entitle him to an award of attorney’s fees.” This description misses much of what was at stake in that case.
Hewitt opens: “This case presents the peculiar-sounding question whether a party who litigates to judgment and loses on all of his claims can nonetheless be a “prevailing party” for purposes of an award of attorney’s fees.”
Thus understood, Hewitt is far removed from a case in which the plaintiff prevailed in his request for declaratory and injunctive relief, losing only on damages because of qualified immunity.
The Fourth Circuit’s cramped understanding of Hewitt in Lefemine appears attributable to the appellate court’s 1993 decision in People Helpers Foundation, Inc. v. Richmond, 12 F.3d 1321 (4th Cir. 1993)–an opaque decision that is difficult to reconcile with Hewitt and with the Supreme Court’s understanding of its precedents as revealed in today’s decision.
Looking ahead, the rule of today’s decision in Lefemine is that a federal court should presumptively award attorney’s fees under § 1988 if a civil rights plaintiff wins an injunction that orders defendant officials to change their behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.