Evans v. Jeff D.
475 U.S. 717 (1986)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Evans v. Jeff D., 475 U.S. 717 (1986)

Evans v. Jeff D.

No. 84-1288

Argued November 13, 1985

Decided April 21, 1986

475 U.S. 717

Syllabus

The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976 (Fees Act) provides that "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee" in enumerated civil rights actions. Respondents brought a class action against petitioners (the Governor and other public officials of Idaho responsible for the education and treatment of mentally handicapped children) in Federal District Court on behalf of children who have been or will be placed in petitioners' care. It was alleged that deficiencies in both the educational programs and health care services provided respondents violated the Federal and State Constitutions and various federal and state statutes. Injunctive relief and an award of costs and attorney's fees were sought. Ultimately, the District Court approved a settlement granting the injunctive relief sought conditional on respondents' waiver of any claim for attorney's fees. The Court of Appeals invalidated the fee waiver, left standing the remainder of the settlement, and remanded to the District Court to determine what attorney's fees were reasonable, holding that the historical background of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e), which gives a district court power to approve settlements of class actions, and of the Fees Act, compelled the conclusion that a stipulated waiver of attorney's fees obtained solely as a condition for obtaining relief for the class should not be accepted by the court.

Held:

1. The District Court had the power, in its discretion, to approve the waiver of attorney's fees. Pp. 475 U. S. 730-738.

(a) The language of the Fees Act, as well as its legislative history, indicates that Congress bestowed on the "prevailing party" a statutory eligibility for a discretionary award of attorney's fees in specified civil rights actions. Neither the statute nor the legislative history suggests that Congress intended to forbid all waivers of attorney's fees. Congress neither bestowed fee awards upon attorneys nor rendered them nonwaivable or nonnegotiable; instead, it added them to the remedies available to combat civil rights violations, a goal not invariably inconsistent

Page 475 U. S. 718

with conditioning settlement on the merits on a waiver of statutory attorney's fees. Pp. 475 U. S. 730-732.

(b) A general proscription against waiver of attorney's fees in exchange for a settlement on the merits would itself impede vindication of civil rights, at least in some cases, by reducing the attractiveness of settlement. It is not implausible to anticipate that parties to a significant number of civil rights cases would refuse to settle if liability for attorney's fees remained open, thereby forcing more cases to trial, unnecessarily burdening the judicial system, and disserving civil rights litigants. Pp. 475 U. S. 732-738.

2. The District Court did not abuse its discretion in approving a waiver of attorney's fees that secured broad injunctive relief greater than that which respondents could reasonably have expected to achieve at trial. There is nothing in the record to indicate that Idaho has adopted a statute, policy, or practice insisting on a fee waiver as a condition of settlement in civil rights litigation in conflict with the Fees Act. Nor does the record indicate that petitioners' request to waive fees was a vindictive effort to deter attorneys from representing plaintiffs in civil rights suits against Idaho. Pp. 475 U. S. 738-743.

743 F.2d 648, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 475 U. S. 743.

Page 475 U. S. 719

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Primary Holding

Civil rights settlements may include waivers of fees and costs.

Facts

Jeff D. brought a class action on behalf of similarly situated people suffering from emotional and mental handicaps to obtain remedies for civil rights violations. In the ensuing settlement, they received the remedies that they sought but did not receive attorney fees and costs. After the consent decree was entered, the class tried to eliminate the portion of the agreement that waived fees and costs on the grounds that it violated the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Act. However, the waiver was upheld by the trial court.

Opinions

Majority

  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

The eligibility for attorney's fees and costs created by the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Act may be waived. The purpose of this law was to encourage capable lawyers to take civil rights cases on behalf of parties who might not be able to pay them. This purpose is not undermined by the use of eligibility for fees as a bargaining tactic in negotiations.

Dissent

  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

While the plaintiffs benefited from this settlement, attorneys should not be placed in such an ethical dilemma. It is unfair to require them to accept these settlements while losing the fees. This counteracts the incentives provided by the Act.

Case Commentary

Unless a statute explicitly provides otherwise, the American legal system requires each party to bear its own attorney fees.

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