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Supreme Court: State Courts Must Adhere to Federal Rules as to Attorney Fee Awards under Sec. 1988

In a state court § 1983 proceeding in which fees were awarded under § 1988, the state courts were bound to apply the Supreme Court’s interpretation of § 1988. Otherwise, as Justice Story explained 100 years ago in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, federal law would mean different things in different states: “The public mischiefs that would attend such a state of things would be truly deplorable.” 

Therefore the state court could not award attorneys’ fees under § 1988 to a prevailing defendant unless the plaintiff’s action was determined to be frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation. (This reiteration of the standard under § 1988 usefully contrasts with Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 136 S.Ct. 1979 (2016), which holds in connection with fees under the Copyright Act that plaintiffs and defendants must be treated equally under that statute’s fee-shifting purposes. Different statutory schemes call for different fee analyses and § 1988 fees turn on § 1988 authority.) See: James v. City of Boise, 136 S.Ct. 685 (2016) (per curiam). 

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Related legal case

James v. City of Boise