A recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States has firmly established that a plaintiff who is awarded an injunction but no monetary damages is in fact a “prevailing party,” and is eligible to receive appropriate attorney fees.awarded an injunction but no monetary damages is in fact a “prevailing party,” and is eligible to receive appropriate attorney fees.
In Lefemine v. Wideman, 586 U.S. __ (2012), the Plaintiff and other member s of Columbia Christians for Life (CCL) were protesting abortion by carrying pictures of aborted fetuses around an intersection in South Carolina. After receiving complaints about the graphic images on the signs, a police officer told Plaintiff that he would be ticketed if he did not discard his sign. Plaintiff complained that the officer was depriving him of his First Amendment rights, but the threat of a ticket was sufficient to cause Plaintiff to cease protesting.
The following year, Plaintiff sent a letter through his attorney to the chief of police. The letter stated that Plaintiff planned to protest in the same manner as before and that attempting to stop him would force Plaintiff to take legal action. The chief of police responded that if Plaintiff insisted on protesting in the same manner, he would be ticketed. Again, the threat was enough to keep Plaintiff from protesting.
In October 2008, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 against several police officers alleging that they had deprived him of his rights under the First Amendment and seeking damages, injunctive relief, and attorney fees under 42 U.S.C. §1988. On summary judgment, the district court ruled that Defendants did indeed violate Plaintiff’s First Amendments. The district court enjoined Defendants from “’engaging in content-based restrictions on [Plaintiff’s] display of graphic signs’ under similar circumstances.” However, the court did not award damages to Plaintiff. The court also did not award attorney fees to Plaintiff, saying simply that the “totality of the facts” did not warrant such an award.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Plaintiff was not entitled to attorney fees. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that an award of injunctive relief without damages was insufficient to make Plaintiff a “prevailing party,” as required by §1988. The court said that the award of an injunction did not “alte[r] the relative positions of the parties.” Plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States who then granted certiorari.
The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court and the Fourth Circuit and issued a per curiam opinion holding that Plaintiff was indeed a “prevailing party” when he had been awarded an injunction even though he did not receive an award for damages. The Court reasoned that in securing an injunction, the Plaintiff had successfully removed the police’s threat of sanctions for exercising his First Amendment rights. The Court stated rather succinctly: “Before the ruling, the police intended to stop [Plaintiff] from protesting with his signs; after the ruling, the police could not prevent him from demonstrating in that manner.” This, the Court reasoned, was enough to fulfill the requirement that the relationship of the parties be materially altered. The Court then remanded the case back to the district court to determine the remaining issues in accordance with the Supreme Court’s opinion.
This ruling should be seen as a victory for all plaintiffs seeking protections of their constitutional rights against government actors. As can be seen from this case, it is very possible for a plaintiff to successfully show a deprivation of constitutional rights but simultaneously fail to obtain an award for damages. Injunctive relief is a common remedy sought in constitutional cases and the cost of litigation may deter a significant number of plaintiffs from pursuing constitutional cases if attorney fees are not available without an award of damages. This ruling is yet another step towards protection of constitutional rights that may not support an award of damages. This ruling should also further serve to strengthen the remedy of injunction since it now carries a greater chance of triggering the award of attorney fees to successful plaintiffs.
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