Private lawsuits challenging government violation of civil rights are notoriously difficult and expensive to bring and win. To address such impediments to the vindication of civil rights, Congress passed a law that, among other things, awards attorneys’ fees to the prevailing parties in certain cases. As noted by the House Judiciary Committee, this was necessary because “a vast majority of the victims of civil rights violations cannot afford legal counsel, they are unable to present their cases to the courts …. [the law at issue, 42 U.S.C. § 1988] is designed to give such persons effective access to the judicial process.” Congress thus harnessed market principles, creating an economic incentive for citizens to vindicate their civil rights directly rather than relying exclusively on enforcement actions by the federal government itself.
In the case of Fox v. Vice, however, the Fifth Circuit ruled that an unsuccessful result on a threshold or procedural matter relating to part of a lawsuit could justify a court order requiring the plaintiff to pay all of the defendants’ attorney’s fees — even those expended to address other, meritorious claims. Such a rule departs from the market-oriented legal structure Congress designed and, if allowed to stand, would significantly harm the ability of plaintiffs to bring private civil rights claims.
Cato, joining the Liberty Institute, the Independence Law Center, the Institute for Justice, and the James Madison Center for Free Speech, filed a brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court reverse the Fifth Circuit and making three points:
First, by awarding the defendant fees for the entire suit based on the dismissal of one claim, the Fifth Circuit’s decision imposes prohibitive costs on the enforcement of civil rights.
Second, the exceptional timing of the fee award in this case — before resolution of the plaintiff’s related state-law claims — creates a dangerous precedent that threatens to derail civil rights actions. By prematurely deeming a plaintiff’s suit frivolous and ordering the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s fees before the conclusion of the litigation, the Fifth Circuit’s rule imposes financial penalties that would shut down legitimate lawsuits midstream.
Third, the Court should not permit fee awards in situations where a plaintiff dismisses a federal claim in order to secure a remand of related state-law claims to state court. Otherwise, the threat of a fee award will improperly burden the plaintiff’s decision to bring a federal claim in state court at all — contrary to the law’s purpose here.
In addition to reversing the judgment below, the Court should reinforce that a mid-litigation fee award is improper when a plaintiff voluntarily drops a federal claim in order to return to state court. The Court will hear Fox v. Vice on March 22, with a decision expected in June.