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Hensley v. Eckerhart

Supreme Court of the United States

November 3, 1982, Argued ; May 16, 1983, Decided

No. 81-1244


 [*426]   [***46]   [**1935]  JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

 Title 42 U. S. C. § 1988 provides that in federal civil rights actions ] "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." The issue in this case is whether a partially  [**1936]  prevailing plaintiff may recover an attorney's fee for legal services on unsuccessful claims.

Respondents brought this lawsuit [****5]  on behalf of all persons involuntarily confined at the Forensic Unit of the Fulton State Hospital in Fulton, Mo. The Forensic Unit consists of two residential buildings for housing patients who are dangerous to themselves or others. Maximum-security patients are housed in the Marion O. Biggs Building for the Criminally Insane. The rest of the patients reside in the less restrictive Rehabilitation Unit.

In 1972 respondents filed a three-count complaint in the District Court for the Western District of Missouri against petitioners, who are officials at the Forensic Unit and members of the Missouri Mental Health Commission. Count I challenged the constitutionality of treatment and conditions at the Forensic Unit. Count II challenged the placement of patients in the Biggs Building without procedural due process. Count III sought compensation for patients who performed institution-maintaining labor.

Count II was resolved by a consent decree in December 1973. Count III largely was mooted in August 1974 when  [*427]  petitioners began compensating patients for labor pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U. S. C. § 201 et seq.  In April 1975 respondents [****6]  voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit and filed a new two-count complaint. Count I again related to the constitutionality of treatment and conditions at the Forensic Unit. Count II sought damages, based on the Thirteenth Amendment, for the value of past patient labor. In July 1976 respondents voluntarily dismissed this backpay count. Finally, in August 1977 respondents filed an amended one-count complaint specifying the conditions that allegedly violated their constitutional right to treatment.

In August 1979, following a three-week trial, the District Court held that an involuntarily committed patient has a constitutional right to minimally adequate treatment. 475 F.Supp. 908, 915 (1979). The court then found constitutional violations in five of six general areas: physical environment; individual treatment plans; least restrictive environment; visitation, telephone, and mail privileges; and seclusion and restraint. 2 With respect to staffing, the sixth  [***47]  general area,  [*428]  the District Court found that the Forensic Unit's staffing levels, which had increased during the litigation, were minimally adequate.  Id., at 919-920. Petitioners [****7]  did not appeal the District Court's decision on the merits.

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461 U.S. 424 *; 103 S. Ct. 1933 **; 76 L. Ed. 2d 40 ***; 1983 U.S. LEXIS 160 ****; 51 U.S.L.W. 4552; 31 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 1169; 32 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P33,618



Disposition:  664 F.2d 294, vacated and remanded.


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Civil Rights Law, Procedural Matters, Costs & Attorney Fees, General Overview, Civil Procedure, Judicial Officers, Judges, Discretionary Powers, Remedies, Degree of Success, Reasonable Fees, Statutory Attorney Fee Awards