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In the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, Congress amended 42 U.S.C.S. § 1988 to permit the award of a reasonable attorney's fee to the "prevailing party" as part of the taxable costs in a suit brought under any of several specified civil rights statutes. A person may in some circumstances be a prevailing party under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C.S. § 1988, without having obtained a favorable final judgment following a full trial on the merits.
Plaintiffs Hampton et al. were seven individuals who had been arrested following the execution of a warrant for the search of an apartment in Chicago, Illinois, along with the legal representatives of two other persons who had been killed in the course of the search. They brought an action for damages under federal civil rights laws against defendants Cook County, Illinois, the City of Chicago, various state and local officials, three FBI agents, and an FBI informant. Plaintiffs alleged that their constitutional rights had been violated by the defendants. Following the trial, the district court directed verdicts for all of the defendants, but the court of appeals reversed and remanded the case for a new trial and awarded the plaintiffs their costs on appeal, including attorney's fees which the appellate court believed were authorized by the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976 (42 USCS 1988). Hence, the court of appeals concluded that the plaintiffs were prevailing parties within the meaning of the Act authorized to receive attorney's fees. Defendants sought review.
Was the appellate court correct in holding that plaintiffs-respondents were authorized to receive attorney’s fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976?
The Court reversed the judgment insofar as it awarded attorney's fees to respondents on appeal. The court explained that respondents were not prevailing parties in the sense intended by the Act. Because while Congress contemplated the award of fees pendente lite in some cases, it intended to permit such an interlocutory award only when a party has prevailed on the merits of at least some of his claims, either in the trial court or on appeal. In this case, the court found that respondents had not prevailed on the merits of any of their claims, because the appellate court only held that they were entitled to a trial of their cause. The Court held that while the respondents did prevail on several matters in the sense that the appellate court overturned rulings entered against them by the district court, still, those were not matters on which a party could prevail for purposes of shifting his counsel fees to the opposing party under the Act.