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The extent of a plaintiff's success is a crucial factor in determining the proper amount of an award of attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1988. Where the plaintiff has failed to prevail on a claim that is distinct in all respects from his successful claims, the hours spent on the unsuccessful claim should be excluded in considering the amount of a reasonable fee.
In an action brought on behalf of all persons involuntarily confined in the forensic unit of a state hospital, which action challenged the constitutionality of treatment at the hospital, the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, after a trial, found constitutional violations in five of the six general areas of treatment. Subsequent to the trial, the representatives of the certified plaintiff class of involuntarily confined inmates filed a request for attorneys' fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976 (42 USCS 1988), which provided 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." After determining that the plaintiff class was the prevailing party under 42 USCS 1988, even though they had not succeeded on every claim, the District Court refused to eliminate from the fee award compensation for hours spent on unsuccessful claims. The District Court found that the significant extent of the relief obtained clearly justified the award of a reasonable attorney's fee. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.
Could a partially prevailing plaintiff recover an attorney’s fee for legal services on unsuccessful claims?
Because the district court had not indicated that it considered the relationship between the amount of fee awarded and the fact that respondents were not successful on all of their claims, the Supreme Court vacated and remanded. While finding that the determination of a reasonable fee was based on the hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable rate, the Court held that the outcome of the litigation was a crucial factor in the fee determination. Holding that fees should not be awarded for services on unsuccessful claims that were distinct from the successful claims, the Court remanded for a determination of what fees were reasonable in light of respondents' partial success.