Unanimous Supreme Court Vindicates Market-Based Fees for Civil Rights Claims

It hasn’t happened that much under my watch, but it’s gratifying when the Supreme Court overwhelmingly endorses Cato’s position in a given case.  Not a 5-4 split dependent on what Justice Kennedy had for breakfast or some narrow “win” that doesn’t reach the issues we care most about, but a solid across-the-board victory for our first principles.

But such was the case in Justice Kagan’s (!) opinion for a unanimous Court in Fox v. Vice, in which Cato filed a brief last December that I discussed here:

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.

Today the Supreme Court essentially agreed 9-0 with our view that (1) the Fifth Circuit’s decision imposes prohibitive costs on civil rights enforcement of civil rights; (2) by prematurely deeming a suit frivolous and ordering the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s fees, the lower court imposed penalties that would shut down legitimate lawsuits midstream; and (3) 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, contrary to the law’s purpose here.

In short, when a plaintiff’s lawsuit is for both frivolous and non-frivolous claims, a court may grant reasonable fees but only for the costs that a defendant would not have incurred but for the frivolous claims – so no fee awards even for work that goes towards both frivolous and non-frivolous claims.  You can read the opinion here

Thanks to our pro bono counsel at WilmerHale and to the organizations who joined us on our brief: the Liberty Institute, the Independence Law Center, the Institute for Justice, and the James Madison Center for Free Speech.