U.S. Supreme Court holds City not entitled to attorney’s fees for defending §1983 lawsuit

James v. Boise 15-493 (U.S. January 25, 2016).

This is a case involving attorney’s fees for suits under 42. U.S.C. §1983 (constitutional violations mainly).  Essentially, the U.S. Supreme Court held the test for determining a “prevailing party” is dictated by federal, not state, law.  While mainly of interest to litigators, it is an important one to keep in mind under a cost/benefit analysis for government general counsel.

The opinion is 1 ½ pages long and does not list any facts.  Essentially, after the City was successful in defending a §1983 lawsuit, it sought attorney’s fees.  The trial court awarded attorney’s fees under §1988 without first determining that “the plaintiff ’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.”  The Idaho Supreme Court upheld the award, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard for when a defendant can receive fees is not binding on the state under §1988.  The court expressly awarded fees under federal law and declined to award under state law. The U.S. Supreme Court made short work of the opinion holding state courts were bound by the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of federal statutes. Otherwise, federal law would have different meanings in different states. The award of attorney’s fees for the City was reversed but remanded for a determination of the frivolous nature of the original suit.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per Curiam opinion. The attorney listed for the Petitioner is John A. Bush.  The attorney listed for the City is Scott B. Muir.