Law School Case Brief
Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home v. W. Va. Dep't of Health & Human Res. - 532 U.S. 598, 121 S. Ct. 1835 (2001)
A defendant's voluntary change in conduct, although perhaps accomplishing what the plaintiff sought to achieve by the lawsuit, lacks the necessary judicial imprimatur on the change. Precedents thus counsel against holding that the term "prevailing party" authorizes an award of attorney's fees without a corresponding alteration in the legal relationship of the parties.
The West Virginia state fire marshal cited certain residential-care facilities for violating a state law which required that all residents of such facilities be capable of "self-preservation." Cease-and-desist orders were issued requiring the closure of those facilities. The corporation which operated the facilities then brought an action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia against defendants including the state, and alleged that the self-preservation requirement violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) (42 USCS 3601 et seq.) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) (42 USCS 12101 et seq.). While the case was pending, the state legislature eliminated the self-preservation requirement and the state successfully moved to have the case dismissed as moot. The corporation, moving for an award of attorneys' fees, contended that it was a "prevailing party" entitled to such fees under provisions of the FHAA (42 USCS 3613(c)(2)) and ADA (42 USCS 12205) as, under the "catalyst theory," a party could be considered to have prevailed for purposes of a fee award if the party achieved the desired result because the party's lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct. The district court, following a previous decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, rejected the catalyst theory and accordingly denied the motion for fees. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Consequently, the corporation appealed.
Under the provisions of Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) or Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was the corporation a “prevailing party” entitled to attorney’s fees?
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the "catalyst theory" was not a permissible basis for the award of attorney's fees under the FHAA and ADA. Under the "American Rule," parties were ordinarily required to bear their own attorney's fees, and courts follow a general practice of not awarding fees to a prevailing party absent explicit statutory authority. Furthermore, the Court held that a party who failed to secure a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree, but who, under the catalyst theory, nevertheless achieved the desired result because the party's lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct, was not a prevailing party entitled to an award of attorneys' fees under the FHAA or the ADA, as enforceable judgments on the merits and court-ordered consent decrees created the material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties necessary to permit a fee award, whereas the catalyst theory would allow awards where there was no judicially sanctioned change in that relationship.
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