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The language and legislative history of 42 U.S.C.S. § 7607(f) do not support an argument that the section was intended as a radical departure from established principles requiring that a fee claimant attain some success on the merits before it may receive an award of fees. Instead, if Congress intended such a novel result -- which would require federal courts to make sensitive, difficult, and ultimately highly subjective determinations -- it would have said so in far plainer language than that employed here. Hence, absent some degree of success on the merits by the claimant, it is not "appropriate" for a federal court to award attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C.S. § 7607(f).
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected all the claims of respondent environmental groups who were challenging standards promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency relating to air pollution. Notwithstanding their lack of success on the merits, the groups filed a request for attorney's fees incurred in the action, relying on 307(f) of the Clean Air Act (42 USCS 7607(f)), which permitted the award of attorney's fees in certain proceedings whenever the court determined that such an award was appropriate. The Court of Appeals agreed with the groups that it was appropriate for them to receive fees where they contributed to the goals of the Act. A writ of certiorari was granted.
Was the award of attorney’s fees proper, notwithstanding the fact that the environmental groups did not prevail on a single claim against the Agency?
On certiorari, the court held that because a party had to prevail on at least part of its substantive claims in order to receive attorney fees, respondent groups were not entitled to attorney’s fees. The court held that the legislative history, which indicated that a party did not have to prevail to receive attorney fees, merely meant that a party need not prevail on all, or the central, issues. The court held that if Congress wanted to overturn the longstanding rule that a losing party was not entitled to receive attorney fees from the winner, it would have said so in plain language. Because Congress did not, respondents were not entitled to attorney fees under § 307(f) of the Act. The court, therefore, reversed the judgment of the lower court that awarded attorney fees to respondents.