Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Supreme Court: the plaintiffs' lawyers get paid

If you think about it, the law that allows prevailing civil rights plaintiffs to recover attorneys' fees is one of the reasons we still have civil rights in this country. If lawyers are not willing to take on the case because no one can afford to pay them, the plaintiffs cannot challenge those violations. So when the Supreme Court takes on an attorneys' fees case, you should sit up and pay attention.

The case is Lefemine v. Wideman, decided by the Court on November 5. This case was under the radar. The Court issues a brief ruling without oral argument, which means that we did not see it coming and also that the Court thinks the case raises an easy issue on the availability of attorneys' fees when the plaintiff wins an injunction without money damages. Except that the case was not so easy because the Fourth Circuit went the other way on this issue. That Fourth Circuit decision is overturned.

The plaintiffs were anti-abortion protesters. The police told them to take down their signs because they were too graphic. As a result of this warning, the plaintiffs refrained from any further protesting for two years. The district court ruled that defendants violated plaintiffs' rights and it enjoined defendants from doing it again. But the district court denied attorneys' fees "under the totality of the facts in this case," and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court did not even bother to have the lawyers brief this case, much less hold oral argument. It says that the injunction altered the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendants' behavior in a way that benefits the plaintiff. That means the plaintiffs are prevailing parties, which means they are eligible for attorneys' fees. The Court sums up: "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,' the relief given—as in the usual case involving such an injunction—supported the award of attorney’s fees." The case is remanded on the presumption that plaintiffs get their fees in the absence of  special circumstances. Those "special circumstances" rarely exist, so the lawyers will probably get paid.

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