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Supreme Court Holds Securing Injunction Justifies Award of Attorney's Fees

On November 5, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a plaintiff in a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 who secured a permanent injunction, but not nominal damages, was a "prevailing party" and thus entitled to recover attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. 1988.

Steven Lefemine and members of the Columbia Christians for Life protest the legality of abortions by displaying pictures of aborted fetuses in public demonstrations. In 2005, about twenty of them were demonstrating at a busy intersection in Greenwood County, South Carolina when a Greenwood County law enforcement officer told Lefemine that there had been complaints about the signs and, if they were not discarded, he would be ticketed for disturbing the peace. This caused Lefemine to disband the demonstration.

A year later, Lefemine's attorney sent a letter to the sheriff of Greenwood County expressing the group's intention to again demonstrate at the same site and cautioning that Lefemine would "pursue all available legal remedies" if interfered with. A response from the chief deputy maintained that the previous response to the demonstration had been legal and a similar response would attend any future demonstration. Fearing the threatened sanctions, Lefemine cancelled the planned demonstration.

Lefemine filed a civil right suit against Greenwood County law enforcement officials pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 in federal court alleging violations of his First Amendment rights and seeking nominal damages, a declaratory judgment, a permanent injunction and attorney's fees. The district court held that Lefemine's civil rights had been violated and issued a permanent injunction enjoining the defendants "from engaging in content-based restrictions on [Lefemine's] display of graphic signs." The court refused to grant nominal damages, finding that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because the illegality of their conduct was not clearly established at the time it occurred. The court also denied the request for attorney's fees, stating that the award was not warranted "under the totality of the facts."

Lefemine appealed the denial of attorney fees. The Fourth Circuit held that he was not a "prevailing party" because the relief awarded had not altered the relative positions of the parties as it only enjoined the defendants from violating Lefemine's constitutional rights in the future and no damages were awarded. Thus, the court reasoned, Lefemine was not entitled to attorney's fees. Lefemine filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court granted the petition. It held that the injunction altered the legal relationship between Lefemine and the defendants because, before the injunction was issued, the defendants intended to continue preventing Lefemine from using graphic signs in his demonstrations and afterwards they could not prevent him from demonstrating in that

manner. Therefore, Lefemine was a "prevailing party" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and should be allowed to recover "a reasonable attorney's fee" absent special circumstances which would render such an award unjust, an issue which had not been addressed by any of the courts below. Therefore, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Fourth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: Lefemine v. Wideman, U.S.S.Ct., No. 12-168.


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Related legal case

Lefemine v. Wideman