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Monday, June 6, 2011

Unanimous Supreme Court Limits Awarding of Attorney’s Fees to Defendants Accused of Civil Rights Violations

Today the Supreme Court unanimously held in Fox v. Vice that a court may grant reasonable attorney’s fees to a civil rights defendant, but only for costs that the defendant would not have incurred without claims deemed frivolous.

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 incumbent 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 court to order payment of fees to the successful party when a claim is deemed frivolous. Fox argued 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.

The Court, in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Kagan, stated that, “if a frivolous claim occasioned the attorney’s fees at issue, a court may decide that the defendant should not have to pay them.” However, the opinion added that, “if the defendant would have incurred those fees anyway, to defend against non-frivolous claims, then a court has no basis for transferring the expense to the plaintiff.” The Court opposed a fee-shifting system that would allow a defendant to recover all attorneys’ fees when only some claims were deemed frivolous because it “would furnish windfalls to some defendants, making them better off because they were subject to a suit including frivolous claims.” Though it will be for lower courts to decide the breakdown, the Court noted that the district court’s analysis suggested that Vice’s attorneys would have done much the same work even if Fox had not brought the federal civil rights claims that were deemed frivolous.

As a result of this ruling, victims of civil rights violations will be less intimidated by the prospect of suing the perpetrators of those violations because victims will be less likely to be saddled with the perpetrators’ attorney’s fees in addition to their own.

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