The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, authorizes the award of “a reasonable attorney’s fee” to “the prevailing party”. Lefemine v. Wideman, 672 F. 3d 292, 302 (4th Cir. 2012) (The Supreme Court has held that generally “plaintiffs may be considered `prevailing parties’ for attorney’s fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing the suit.”)
Congress enacted fee-shifting statutes that allow a court to award attorney’s fees to the “prevailing party” in civil rights lawsuits. A “prevailing party” acts “not for himself alone but also as a “private attorney general” who advances important public policies. Congress wanted to encourage those, who are victims of civil rights violations, to seek relief in the courts.
The fact that a settlement was reached has no bearing on a plaintiff’s right to attorneys’ fees. Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc., et al. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources et al., 532 U.S. 598, 643 (2001) (“A plaintiff prevails, federal judges have overwhelmingly agreed, when a litigated judgment, consent decree, out-of-court settlement, or the defendant’s voluntary, postcomplaint payment or change in conduct in fact affords redress for the plaintiff’s substantial grievances.”); Hewitt et al v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 761 (1987) (“It is settled law, of course, that relief need not be judicially decreed in order to justify a fee award under § 1988. A lawsuit sometimes produces voluntary action by the defendant that affords the plaintiff all or some of the relief he sought through a judgment — e. g., a monetary settlement or a change in conduct that redresses the plaintiff’s grievances.”); Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129 (1980) (“We also find no merit in petitioner’s suggestion that respondent was not the “prevailing party” within the meaning of § 1988. The fact that respondent prevailed through a settlement rather than through litigation does not weaken her claim to fees.”)
Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire