Felling the Farrar Forest: Determining Whether Federal Courts Will Award ' 1988 Attorney's Fees to a Prevailing Civil Rights Plaintiff Who Only Recovers Nominal Damages

By Bean, Joseph | The University of Memphis Law Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Felling the Farrar Forest: Determining Whether Federal Courts Will Award ' 1988 Attorney's Fees to a Prevailing Civil Rights Plaintiff Who Only Recovers Nominal Damages


Bean, Joseph, The University of Memphis Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Congress recognized the importance of awarding attorney's fees to civil rights plaintiffs who had valid claims but who did not have the resources to retain counsel when it enacted the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act of 1976,1 thereby amending 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Because Congress enacted this statutory exception to the American Rule,3 attorney's fees may now be awarded to the prevailing party in civil rights actions, motivating competent attorneys to represent clients who would not otherwise be attractive because of their inability to fund the litigation.4

At first glance, the term "prevailing party" seems fairly straightforward. However, federal courts have struggled to determine exactly who qualifies as a prevailing party in a civil rights action.5 Federal courts have also experienced great difficulty in deciding whether all plaintiffs who attain prevailing party status as the result of an enforceable judgment in their favor should be awarded attorney's fees at all.6 The latter problem arises when a civil rights plaintiff is awarded a judgment of nominal damages and nothing more.

Assume, for example, that a plaintiff initiates a § 1983 action, alleging that a search and seizure by a police officer violated the plaintiffs Fourth Amendment rights. The plaintiff seeks $150,000 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in punitive damages. At trial, the jury finds that the police officer violated the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights but that the plaintiff has failed to prove the requisite actual injury necessary to obtain compensatory relief. The plaintiff has also failed to prove that the police officer's actions were reckless, wanton, or malicious, thereby disposing of the claim for punitive damages.9 Accordingly, the jury enters a judgment in favor of the plaintiff but only awards him nominal damages in the amount of one dollar.10 Because the plaintiff received an enforceable judgment in his favor, he is a prevailing party for purposes of § 1988," and the plaintiff's attorney will move for an award of attorney's fees pursuant to that statute. However, because the prevailing plaintiff obtained only nominal damages, the court might not grant his motion for attorney's fees, depending on its interpretation of the Supreme Court's ambiguous decision in Farrar v. Hobby.

In Farrar, the Court held that when a civil rights plaintiff fails to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief and thus recovers only nominal damages, "the only reasonable [attorney's] fee is usually no fee at all."13 While holding that the reasonable fee is usually no fee, the majority opinion failed to elaborate on what it meant by usually,14 justice O'Connor, however, who provided the fifth vote necessary to the majority opinion,15 offered some guidelines for making the attorney's fee determination.16 In her concurring opinion, she identified three factors at which courts must look to determine whether attorney's fees should be awarded to a plaintiff who obtains nominal damages only.17 In spite of O'Connor's factors, the Farrar decision still provides scant guidance. The vague guidelines that the Farrar Court provided in determining whether attorney's fees should be awarded to a plaintiff who only recovers nominal damages have led the lower courts to struggle with the question of whether a plaintiff who receives nominal damages merits attorney's fees.

This Note aims to provide guidance to help determine when a plaintiff who has received only nominal damages is likely to receive an award of attorney's fees. The Note will begin by analyzing the law from shortly before the passage of the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act of 1976 to the Farrar decision in 1992, focusing primarily on Supreme Court decisions. The Note will then provide an analysis of the Supreme Court's Farrar decision. Next, this Note will focus on the rationale of post-Farrar federal court decisions, attempting to place them into three discernible groups: (1) cases in which a court will always award attorney's fees to a plaintiff who recovers nominal damages; (2) cases in which a court will never award attorney's fees to a plaintiff who recovers nominal damages only; and (3) cases in which the lower courts are in disagreement concerning the award of attorney's fees to a civil rights plaintiff who recovers nominal damages only. …

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