Under the civil rights laws, the winner recovers attorneys' fees from the losing party. As with everything else in law, the prevailing party inquiry is complicated. An outright victory at trial or court order means the plaintiff is entitled to attorneys' fees. If the case settles, it's a closer question.
The case is Perez v. Westchester County Department of Corrections, decided on November 19. The Muslim plaintiffs sued their jailers for religious discrimination over the refusal to serve them Halal meat consistent with their religious practices. Prior to trial, the County agreed to provide the food as frequently as it provided Jewish inmates kosher food, ending the case.
Ten years ago, this was a more straightforward question. Most federal courts recognized the plaintiff was a prevailing party under the attorneys fees statute if the defendant gave in and provided plaintiff the relief requested rather than fight the case. This was the "catalyst" theory. But in 2001, the Supreme Court rejected the catalyst theory and held in Buckhannon v. West Virginia that the plaintiff needs a judgment or some kind of judicially-approved settlement. The Second Circuit has interpreted Buckhannon to mean that "judicial action other than a judgment on the merits or a consent decree can support an award of attorneys' fees, so long as such action carries with it sufficient judicial imprimatur."
In this case, when the County agreed to settle (at the district court's urging), the parties did not enter into a consent decree, which would have entitled plaintiffs to attorneys' fees under Buckhannon. However, the dismissal of the lawsuits only took effect "upon the Court's approval and entry of this Stipulation and Order." The district court amended the agreement to designate it an "order of" settlement, and also noted that the court had discretion to accept any case brought by plaintiffs to enforce the settlement in case the County failed to live up to the settlement. The court also "so ordered" the settlement and then awarded plaintiffs' lawyers nearly $100,000 in attorney fees as the prevailing party in this civil rights lawsuit.
The Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Livingston and Korman, D.J.) upholds the fee award under Buckhannon. Challenging the award, the County said the plaintiffs were not prevailing parties and that the settlement was the kind of voluntary change in behavior which disentitles the plaintiffs to any fees under Buckhannon. The Second Circuit disagrees. As a result of the settlement, the County has changed its behavior in providing the religious food. The settlement also has a "sufficient judicial imprimatur" because the trial court retained authority to enforce the settlement. The Second Circuit holds for the first time that an order of dismissal that explicitly incorporates the terms of a settlement entitles the plaintiff to attorneys' fees. This is particularly the case because the district court intended to place its judicial imprimatur on the settlement as shown by its active involvement in sanctioning the settlement. Not only did the district court retain authority to enforce the agreement, but it reviewed and approved the agreement. Plaintiffs satisfy the difficult Buckhannon standard.