In a victory for civil rights lawyers, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a civil rights plaintiff who wins on “any significant issue” is entitled to have some of his attorney’s fees paid by the government.
The unanimous ruling may prove important because it permits civil rights lawyers to be paid for often complex and long-running litigation in which they win on some points and lose on others. As matters now stand, lawyers complain that they sometimes are not paid for cases in which they have won substantial concessions.
In an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the court said that its “generous formulation” of the attorney’s fee rule matches the intent of Congress when it enacted the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fee Awards Act of 1976.
Congress wanted to spur private lawsuits to enforce civil rights and provided that “the prevailing party,” other than the government, was entitled to “a reasonable attorney’s fee” to cover costs. The question in the case just decided by the Supreme Court was how to determine whether a lawyer might qualify as a “prevailing party.”
The two appeals courts covering the South had adopted a strict rule denying fees to the civil rights lawyer who did not win on the “central issue” in a case. Last year, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, relying on that rule, denied an attorney’s fee award for the Texas State Teachers Assn. after a seven-year court battle with the Garland, Tex., school district.
The teachers’ union had sued the school district in 1981 in what it cast as a free-speech dispute. The union prevailed in some demands but lost on others.
In O’Connor’s opinion, even the limited success of the union lawyers made them “prevailing parties within the meaning of” the 1976 law. Writing in the case (Texas Teachers Assn. vs. Garland, 87-1759), she said that the lawyers “obtained a judgment vindicating the First Amendment rights of public employees.”