LEFEMINE v. WIDEMAN
Steven Lefemine and Members of the Columbia Christians for Life engaged in pro life demonstrations where they carry posters featuring graphic pictures of aborted fetuses. During a protest in Greenwood, South Carolina, police officers told Lefemine that he would be ticketed for a breach of the peace if he did not discard the posters. Lefemine objected, arguing that the police officers were infringing on his First Amendment right to free speech, but he eventually disbanded the group. A year later, Lefemines attorney sent a letter to Dan Wideman, sheriff of Greenwood County, informing him that the group would be protesting again on the same site with the posters. The police reiterated that they would ticket the group if they showed up with the offending posters. The group decided not to protest, but two years later Lefamine filed a complaint alleging First Amendment violations and seeking nominal damages, a declaratory judgment, a permanent injunction, and attorneys fees.
Under the Civil Rights Attorney Fees Act the prevailing party in a suit may recover attorney fees from the opposing party. The district court issued a permanent injunction against the police officers, but declined to award money damages. The court also denied attorney fees, holding that attorney fees were not warranted. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that Lefemine was not a prevailing party under the Act. The court reasoned that the injunction did not alter the relative positions of the parties, so no party actually prevailed.
Is a party a "prevailing party" under the Civil Rights Attorney Fees Act when they secure a permanent injunction against the opposing party, but no money damages?
Legal provision: 42 U.S.C. §1988
Yes. In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit and remanded. The Court held that Lefemine was the prevailing party so attorney fees could be awarded. The injunction changed the legal relationship between the parties by removing the threat of police action during protests. The Court noted that special circumstances may still prevent the award of attorney fees, but that is an issue for consideration on remand.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
STEVEN LEFEMINE, dba COLUMBIA CHRISTIANS FOR LIFE v. DAN WIDEMAN et al.
on petition for writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit
No. 12–168. Decided November 5, 2012
This case concerns the award of attorney’s fees in a suit alleging unconstitutional conduct by government officials. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a plaintiff who secured a permanent injunction but no monetary damages was not a “prevailing party” under 42 U. S. C. §1988, and so could not receive fees. That was error. Because the injunction ordered the defendant officials to change their behavior in a way that directly benefited the plaintiff, we vacate the Fourth Circuit’s decision and remand for further proceedings.* * *
Petitioner Steven Lefemine and members of Columbia Christians for Life (CCL) engage in demonstrations in which they carry pictures of aborted fetuses to protest the availability of abortions. On November 3, 2005, Lefemine and about 20 other CCL members conducted such a demonstration at a busy intersection in Greenwood County, South Carolina. Citing complaints about the graphic signs, a Greenwood County police officer informed Lefemine that if the signs were not discarded, he would be ticketed for breach of the peace. Lefemine objected, asserting that the officer was violating his First Amendment rights, but the threat eventually caused him to disband the protest. See Lefemine v. Davis, 732 F. Supp. 2d 614, 617–619 (SC 2010).
A year later, an attorney for Lefemine sent a letter to Dan Wideman, the sheriff of Greenwood County, informing him that the group intended to return to the same site with the disputed signs. The letter cautioned that further interference would cause Lefemine “ ‘to pursue all available legal remedies.’ ” Id., at 619. Chief Deputy Mike Frederick responded that the police had not previously violated Lefemine’s rights, and warned that “ ‘should we observe any protester or demonstrator committing the same act, we will again conduct ourselves in exactly the same manner: order the person(s) to stop or face criminal sanctions.’ ” Ibid. Out of fear of those sanctions, the group chose not to protest in the county for the next two years. See ibid.
On October 31, 2008, Lefemine filed a complaint under 42 U. S. C. §1983 against several Greenwood County police officers alleging violations of his First Amendment rights. Lefemine sought nominal damages, a declaratory judgment, a permanent injunction, and attorney’s fees. See 732 F. Supp. 2d, at 620. Ruling on the parties’ dueling motions for summary judgment, the District Court determined that the defendants had infringed Lefemine’s rights. See id., at 620–625. The court therefore permanently enjoined the defendants “from engaging in content-based restrictions on [Lefemine’s] display of graphic signs” under similar circumstances. Id., at 627. The court, however, refused Lefemine’s request for nominal damages, finding that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because the illegality of their conduct was not clearly established at the time. See ibid. The court as well denied Lefemine’s request for attorney’s fees under §1988, stating that “[u]nder the totality of the facts in this case the award of attorney’s fees is not warranted.” Ibid.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of attorney’s fees on the ground that the District Court’s judgment did not make Lefemine a “prevailing party” under §1988. 672 F. 3d 292, 302–303 (2012). 1 The court reasoned that the relief awarded did not “ ‘alte[r] the relative positions of the parties’ ”: The injunction prohibited only “unlawful, but not legitimate, conduct by the defendant[s],” and merely “ordered [d]efendants to comply with the law and safeguard [Lefemine’s] constitutional rights in the future. No other damages were awarded.” Ibid. Lefemine sought a writ of certiorari to review the Fourth Circuit’s determination that he was not a prevailing party under §1988.
The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, 90Stat. 2641, 42 U. S. C. §1988, allows “the prevailing party” in certain civil rights actions, including suits brought under §1983, to recover “a reasonable attorney’s fee.” A plaintiff “prevails,” we have held, “when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant’s behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff.” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U. S. 103 –112 (1992). And we have repeatedly held that an injunction or declaratory judgment, like a damages award, will usually satisfy that test. See, e.g., Rhodes v. Stewart, 488 U. S. 1, 4 (1988) (per curiam).
Under these established standards, Lefemine was a prevailing party. Lefemine desired to conduct demonstrations in Greenwood County with signs that the defendant police officers had told him he could not carry. He brought this suit in part to secure an injunction to protect himself from the defendants’ standing threat of sanctions. And he succeeded in removing that threat. The District Court held that the defendants had violated Lefemine’s rights and enjoined them from engaging in similar conduct in the future. Contrary to the Fourth Circuit’s view, that ruling worked the requisite material alteration in the parties’ relationship. Before the ruling, the police intended to stop Lefemine from protesting with his signs; after the ruling, the police could not prevent him from demonstrating in that manner. So when the District Court “ordered [d]efendants to comply with the law,” 672 F. 3d, at 303, the relief given—as in the usual case involving such an injunction—supported the award of attorney’s fees.
Because Lefemine is a “prevailing party,” he “should ordinarily recover an attorney’s fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U. S. 424, 429 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted). Neither of the courts below addressed whether any special circumstances exist in this case, and we do not do so; whether there may be other grounds on which the police officers could contest liability for fees is not a question before us. Accordingly, the petition for certiorari is granted, the judgment of the Fourth Circuit is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
1 The defendants did not appeal the District Court’s judgment that they had violated Lefemine’s First Amendment rights, so the Court of Appeals took as a given that a violation had occurred. See 672 F. 3d, at 299, n. 5.