Farrar v. Hobby - 506 U.S. 103 (1992)
OCTOBER TERM, 1992
FARRAR ET AL., COADMINISTRATORS OF ESTATE OF FARRAR, DECEASED v. HOBBY
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
No. 91-990. Argued October 7, 1992-Decided December 14,1992
Petitioners, coadministrators of decedent Farrar's estate, sought $17 million in compensatory damages, pursuant to 42 U. S. C. §§ 1983 and 1985, from respondent Hobby and other Texas public officials for the alleged illegal closure of the school that Farrar and his son operated. However, the Federal District Court awarded them only nominal damages and, subsequently, awarded them $280,000 in attorney's fees under 42 U. S. C. § 1988. The Court of Appeals reversed the fee award on the ground that petitioners were not prevailing parties eligible for fees under § 1988.
1. A plaintiff who wins nominal damages is a prevailing party under § 1988. A plaintiff "prevails" when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff. Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U. S. 755; Rhodes v. Stewart, 488 U. S. 1; Texas State Teachers Assn. v. Garland Independent School Dist., 489 U. S. 782. Here, petitioners were entitled to nominal damages under Carey v. Piphus, 435 U. S. 247, 266, because they were able to establish Hobby's liability for denial of procedural due process, but could not prove the actual injury necessary for a compensatory damages award. Judgment for nominal damages entitled petitioners to demand payment and modified Hobby's behavior for petitioners' benefit by forcing him to pay an amount of money he otherwise would not have paid. The prevailing party inquiry does not turn on the magnitude of the relief obtained, and whether a nominal damages award is a "technical," "insignificant" victory does not affect the plaintiff's prevailing party status. Cf. Garland, supra, at 792. Pp. 109-114.
2. Petitioners are not entitled to a fee award. While the "technical" nature of a nominal damages award does not affect the prevailing party inquiry, it does bear on the propriety of fees awarded under § 1988. The most critical factor in determining a fee award's reasonableness is the degree of success obtained, since a fee based on the hours expended on the litigation as a whole may be excessive if a plaintiff achieves only partial or limited success. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U. S. 424, 436.
When a plaintiff recovers only nominal damages because of his failure to prove an essential element of his claim for monetary relief, the only reasonable fee is usually no fee at all. In light of "the relationship between" the extent of petitioners' success on the merits and the award's amount, id., at 438, the reasonable fee was not the District Court's $280,000 award but no fee at all. Pp. 114-116.
941 F.2d 1311, affirmed.
THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 116. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, post, p. 122.
Gerald M. Birnberg argued the cause for petitioners.
With him on the brief were Michael A. Maness and Waggoner Carr.
Finis E. Cowan argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Dan Morales, Attorney General of Texas, Will Pryor, First Assistant Attorney General, and Thomas Gibbs Gee. *
*Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of Alabama et al. by Warren Price III, Attorney General of Hawaii, and Steven S. Michaels, Deputy Attorney General, Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General of Nevada, and Brooke Nielsen, Assistant Attorney General, Jimmy Evans, Attorney General of Alabama, Charles E. Cole, Attorney General of Alaska, Winston Bryant, Attorney General of Arkansas, Daniel E. Lungren, Attorney General of California, Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General of Connecticut, Charles M. Oberly III, Attorney General of Delaware, Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General of Florida, Michael J. Bowers, Attorney General of Georgia, Larry EchoHawk, Attorney General of Idaho, Roland W Burris, Attorney General of Illinois, Linley E. Pearson, Attorney General of Indiana, Bonnie J. Campbell, Attorney General of Iowa, Robert T. Stephan, Attorney General of Kansas, Chris Gorman, Attorney General of Kentucky, Richard P. Ieyoub, Attorney General of Louisiana, Michael E. Carpenter, Attorney General of Maine, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, Scott Harshbarger, Attorney General of Massachusetts, Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General of Michigan, Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General of Minnesota, Mike Moore, Attorney General of Mississippi, William L. Webster, Attorney General of Missouri, Don Stenberg, Attorney General of Nebraska, John P. Arnold,