Today the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fox v. Vice, a case with important implications for victims of civil rights violations. At stake in this case is the balance between allowing people whose civil rights are violated to seek justice in court, and protecting defendants when suits are deemed frivolous. The Court must determine whether a plaintiff in a civil rights action must pay federal statutory attorney’s fees when the plaintiff’s federal claims are deemed frivolous but the state claims are not.
Ricky Fox, a candidate for police chief in Vinton, Louisiana, was the victim of an extortion plot engineered by the incumbent chief. The incumbent was convicted of criminal extortion as a result of the plot. Fox sued the chief in a state court for federal civil rights violations and related claims based on state law. The Fifth Circuit deemed Fox’s federal claims to be frivolous but did not address the merits of his state claims. The court also ordered Fox to pay all of the convicted extortionist’s legal fees based on a federal statute allowing the payment of fees to the successful party when a claim is deemed frivolous. Fox argues that the court could not award the defendant all of his attorney’s fees when only federal claims are deemed frivolous but state claims requiring an examination of the same facts are not.
Billy Vice, the incumbent police chief who won the attorney fees at issue in this case, died on August 26, 2010. The Supreme Court determined that the case could go forward with Vice’s estate replacing him as a party to the case.
If the Supreme Court sides with the defendant, victims of civil rights violations could become reluctant to sue because they risk being saddled with their opponent’s attorney’s fees in addition to their own.