Hensley v. Eckerhart
461 U.S. 424 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983)

Hensley v. Eckerhart

No. 81-1244

Argued November 3, 1982

Decided May 16, 1983

461 U.S. 424




Respondents, on behalf of all persons involuntarily confined in the forensic unit of a Missouri state hospital, brought suit in Federal District Court against petitioner hospital officials, challenging the constitutionality of treatment and conditions at the hospital. The District Court, after a trial, found constitutional violations in five of the six general areas of treatment. Subsequently, respondents filed a request for attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that, in federal civil rights actions, "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." After determining that respondents were prevailing parties under § 1988 even though they had not succeeded on every claim, the District Court refused to eliminate from the attorney's fees award the hours spent by respondents' attorneys on the unsuccessful claims, finding that the significant extent of the relief clearly justified the award of a reasonable attorney's fee. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The District Court did not properly consider the relationship between the extent of success and the amount of the attorney's fee award. The extent of a plaintiff's success is a crucial factor in determining the proper amount of an attorney's fee award under § 1988. Where the plaintiff failed to prevail on a claim unrelated to the successful claims, the hours spent on the unsuccessful claim should be excluded in considering the amount of a reasonable fee. Where a lawsuit consists of related claims, a plaintiff who has won substantial relief should not have his attorney's fee reduced simply because the district court did not adopt each contention raised. But where the plaintiff achieved only limited success, the court should award only that amount of fees that is reasonable in relation to the results obtained. Pp. 461 U. S. 429-440.

664 F.2d 294, vacated and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 461 U. S. 440. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 461 U. S. 441.

Page 461 U. S. 426

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title 42 U.S.C. § 1988 provides that, in federal civil rights actions, "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 issue in this case is whether a partially prevailing plaintiff may recover an attorney's fee for legal services on unsuccessful claims.



Respondents brought this lawsuit on behalf of all persons involuntarily confined at the Forensic Unit of the Fulton State Hospital in Fulton, Mo. The Forensic Unit consists of two residential buildings for housing patients who are dangerous to themselves or others. Maximum-security patients are housed in the Marion O. Biggs Building for the Criminally Insane. The rest of the patients reside in the less restrictive Rehabilitation Unit.

In 1972, respondents filed a three-count complaint in the District Court for the Western District of Missouri against petitioners, who are officials at the Forensic Unit and members of the Missouri Mental Health Commission. Count I challenged the constitutionality of treatment and conditions at the Forensic Unit. Count II challenged the placement of patients in the Biggs Building without procedural due process. Count III sought compensation for patients who performed institution-maintaining labor.

Count II was resolved by a consent decree in December, 1973. Count III largely was mooted in August, 1974, when

Page 461 U. S. 427

petitioners began compensating patients for labor pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. In April, 1975, respondents voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit and filed a new two-count complaint. Count I again related to the constitutionality of treatment and conditions at the Forensic Unit. Count II sought damages, based on the Thirteenth Amendment, for the value of past patient labor. In July, 1976, respondents voluntarily dismissed this backpay count. Finally, in August, 1977, respondents filed an amended one-count complaint specifying the conditions that allegedly violated their constitutional right to treatment.

In August, 1979, following a three-week trial, the District Court held that an involuntarily committed patient has a constitutional right to minimally adequate treatment. 476 F.Supp. 908, 915 (1979). The court then found constitutional violations in five of six general areas: physical environment; individual treatment plans; least restrictive environment; visitation, telephone, and mail privileges; and seclusion and restraint. [Footnote 1] With respect to staffing, the sixth general area,

Page 461 U. S. 428

the District Court found that the Forensic Unit's staffing levels, which had increased during the litigation, were minimally adequate. Id. at 919-920. Petitioners did not appeal the District Court's decision on the merits.


In February, 1980, respondents filed a request for attorney's fees for the period from January, 1975, through the end of the litigation. Their four attorneys claimed 2,985 hours worked and sought payment at rates varying from $40 to $65 per hour. This amounted to approximately $150,000. Respondents also requested that the fee be enhanced by 30 to 50 percent, for a total award of somewhere between $195,000 and $225,000. Petitioners opposed the request on numerous grounds, including inclusion of hours spent in pursuit of unsuccessful claims.

The District Court first determined that respondents were prevailing parties under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 even though they had not succeeded on every claim. It then refused to eliminate from the award hours spent on unsuccessful claims:

"[Petitioners'] suggested method of calculating fees is based strictly on a mathematical approach comparing the total number of issues in the case with those actually prevailed upon. Under this method, no consideration is given for the relative importance of various issues, the interrelation of the issues, the difficulty in identifying issues, or the extent to which a party may prevail on various issues."

No. 75-CV-87-C, p. 7 (WD Mo., Jan. 23, 1981), Record 220. Finding that respondents "have obtained relief of significant import," id. at 231, the District Court awarded a fee of $133,332.25. This award differed from the fee request in two respects. First, the court reduced the number of hours claimed by one attorney by 30 percent to account for his inexperience

Page 461 U. S. 429

and failure to keep contemporaneous records. Second, the court declined to adopt an enhancement factor to increase the award.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed on the basis of the District Court's memorandum opinion and order. 664 F.2d 294 (1981). We granted certiorari, 455 U.S. 988 (1982), and now vacate and remand for further proceedings.


In Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society,421 U. S. 240 (1975), this Court reaffirmed the "American Rule" that each party in a lawsuit ordinarily shall bear its own attorney's fees unless there is express statutory authorization to the contrary. In response, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, authorizing the district courts to award a reasonable attorney's fee to prevailing parties in civil rights litigation. The purpose of § 1988 is to ensure "effective access to the judicial process" for persons with civil rights grievances. H.R.Rep. No. 94-1558, p. 1 (1976). Accordingly, a prevailing plaintiff "should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.'" S.Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 4 (1976) (quoting Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc.,390 U. S. 400, 390 U. S. 402 (1968)). [Footnote 2]

The amount of the fee, of course, must be determined on the facts of each case. On this issue, the House Report simply refers to 12 factors set forth in Johnson v. Georgia Highway

Page 461 U. S. 430

way Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714 (CA5 1974). [Footnote 3] The Senate Report cites to Johnson as well, and also refers to three District Court decisions that "correctly applied" the 12 factors. [Footnote 4] One of the factors in Johnson, "the amount involved and the results obtained," indicates that the level of a plaintiff's success is relevant to the amount of fees to be awarded. The importance of this relationship is confirmed in varying degrees by the other cases cited approvingly in the Senate Report.

In Stanford Daily v. Zurcher, 64 F.R.D. 680 (ND Cal.1974), aff'd, 550 F.2d 464 (CA9 1977), rev'd on other grounds,436 U. S. 436 U.S. 547 (1978), the plaintiffs obtained a declaratory judgment, then moved for a preliminary injunction. After the defendants promised not to violate the judgment,

Page 461 U. S. 431

the motion was denied. The District Court awarded attorney's fees for time spent pursuing this motion because the plaintiffs "substantially advanced their clients' interests" by obtaining "a significant concession from defendants as a result of their motion." 64 F.R.D. at 684.

In Davis v. County of Los Angeles, 8 E.P.D.

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