Law School Case Brief
Evans v. Jeff D. - 475 U.S. 717, 106 S. Ct. 1531 (1986)
The text of the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C.S. § 1988, provides no support for the proposition that Congress intended to ban all fee waivers offered in connection with substantial relief on the merits. On the contrary, the language of the Act, as well as its legislative history, indicates that Congress bestowed on the prevailing party a statutory eligibility for a discretionary award of attorney's fees in specified civil rights actions. It did not prevent the party from waiving this eligibility anymore than it legislated against assignment of this right to an attorney.
In a complaint in a class action in the United States District Court for the District of Idaho, emotionally and mentally handicapped children alleged that their civil rights under federal and state constitutional and statutory provisions were being violated by the governor and other state officials of Idaho. The complaint, which alleged deficiencies in educational programs and health care services, requested injunctive relief and an award of costs and attorney's fees, but did not request damages. After a period of negotiations, the parties agreed to a settlement which provided that the injunctive relief requested in the complaint would be granted, that the children's claim for costs and attorney's fees would be waived, and that the settlement would be conditioned on the district court's approval of the waiver of attorney's fees. Although the children's attorney, who was employed by a legal aid society, expressed some misgivings about the settlement provision for the waiver of attorney's fees, the district court approved the entire settlement, including the provision for the waiver of attorney's fees. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding (1) that when attorney's fees are negotiated as part of the settlement of a class action, a conflict frequently exists between the class attorney's interest in compensation and the class members' interest in relief, and in order to avoid such a conflict, negotiations as to the settlement of the class members' claim for relief should not be simultaneous with negotiations as to attorney's fees, in the absence of a showing of unusual circumstances, and (2) that in the present case, in which unusual circumstances were not shown, an agreement on attorney's fees should not have been a part of the settlement of the class members' claims for relief, and it was improper to approve a settlement provision for the waiver of attorney's fees as a condition for the class members' obtaining injunctive relief (743 F2d 648).
Did the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C.S. § 1988, require the district court to disapprove the settlement because it was expressly conditioned on waiver of statutory eligibility for attorney fees?
The Supreme Court of the United States concluded that Congress did not command that all such settlements must be rejected, but left the decision to the discretion of the district courts to appraise the reasonableness of particular class-action settlements on a case-by-case basis. On the facts of record in this case, the Court was satisfied that the district court did not abuse its discretion by approving the fee waiver, and as a result, the decision below was reversed.
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