Maher v. Gagne
448 U.S. 122 (1980)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122 (1980)

Maher v. Gagne

No. 78-1888

Argued January 9, 1980

Decided June 25, 1980

448 U.S. 122

Syllabus

Respondent is a recipient of benefits under Connecticut's federally funded Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. She brought this action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Connecticut's AFDC regulations denied her credit for substantial portions of her actual work-related expenses, thus reducing the level of her benefits, and that such regulations violated the Social Security Act and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ultimately, the case was settled and the District Court entered a consent decree that provided for a substantial increase in the standard allowances for work-related expenses and gave AFDC recipients the right to prove that their actual work-related expenses were in excess of the standard. The District Court then awarded respondent's counsel a fee pursuant to the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that, in any action to enforce 42 U.S.C. § 1983, inter alia, the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs. The court held that respondent was entitled to fees under the Act because, in addition to her statutory claim, she had alleged constitutional claims that were sufficiently substantial to support federal jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. Under § 1988, the district courts' authority to award attorney's fees is not limited to cases in which § 1983 is invoked as a remedy for a constitutional violation or a violation of a federal statute providing for the protection of civil or equal rights. As the Court holds in Maine v. Thiboutot, ante p. 448 U. S. 1, § 1988 applies to all types of § 1983 actions, including actions based solely on Social Security Act violations. Thus, even if respondent's claim could be characterized as arising solely out of a Social Security Act violation, this would not preclude the award of attorney's fees under § 1988. Pp. 448 U. S. 128-129.

2. The fact that respondent prevailed through a settlement rather than through litigation does not preclude her from claiming attorney's fees

Page 448 U. S. 123

as the "prevailing party" within the meaning of § 1988. And petitioner's contention that respondent did not gain sufficient relief through the consent decree to be considered the prevailing party is without merit in view of the District Court's contrary finding, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals. Pp. 448 U. S. 129-130.

3. The District Court was not barred by the Eleventh Amendment from awarding attorney's fees against the State. Respondent alleged constitutional violations which both courts below held to be sufficiently substantial to support federal jurisdiction, and the constitutional issues remained in the case until the consent decree was entered. Under these circumstances, petitioner's Eleventh Amendment claim is foreclosed by Hutto v. Finney,437 U. S. 678. In Hutto, the Court rejected the argument that the general language of the Act was insufficient to remove an Eleventh Amendment barrier, noting that "this Court has never viewed the Eleventh Amendment as barring such awards, even in suits between States and individual litigants." Id. at 437 U. S. 695. Moreover, even if the Eleventh Amendment would otherwise present a barrier to an award of attorney's fees against a State, Congress clearly acted within its power under §§5 of the Fourteenth Amendment in removing that barrier. Under §§5, Congress may pass any legislation that is appropriate to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantees, and a statute awarding attorney's fees in a case in which the plaintiff prevails on a wholly statutory, non-civil-rights claim pendent to a substantial constitutional claim or in one in which both a statutory and a substantial constitutional claim are settled favorably to the plaintiff without adjudication falls within the category of "appropriate" legislation. Pp. 448 U. S. 130-133.

594 F.2d 336, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, and in Part II of which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 448 U. S. 133.

Page 448 U. S. 124

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.