Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dept. of Health and Human Resources,
532 U.S. 598 (2001)

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No. 99-1848. Argued February 27, 200l-Decided May 29, 2001

Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc., which operates assisted living residences, failed an inspection by the West Virginia fire marshal's office because some residents were incapable of "self-preservation" as defined by state law. After receiving orders to close its facilities, Buckhannon and others (hereinafter petitioners) brought suit in Federal District Court against the State and state agencies and officials (hereinafter respondents), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief that the "selfpreservation" requirement violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Respondents agreed to stay the orders pending the case's resolution. The state legislature then eliminated the "self-preservation" requirement, and the District Court granted respondents' motion to dismiss the case as moot. Petitioners requested attorney's fees as the "prevailing party" under the FHAA and ADA, basing their entitlement on the "catalyst theory," which posits that a plaintiff is a "prevailing party" if it achieves the desired result because the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct. As the Fourth Circuit had previously rejected the "catalyst theory," the District Court denied the motion, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Held: The "catalyst theory" is not a permissible basis for the award of attorney's fees under the FHAA and ADA. Under the "American Rule," parties are ordinarily required to bear their own attorney's fees, and courts follow a general practice of not awarding fees to a prevailing party absent explicit statutory authority, Key Tronic Corp. v. United States, 511 U. S. 809, 819. Congress has employed the legal term of art "prevailing party" in numerous statutes authorizing awards of attorney's fees. A "prevailing party" is one who has been awarded some relief by a court. See, e. g., Hanrahan v. Hampton, 446 U. S. 754, 758. Both judgments on the merits and court-ordered consent decrees create a material alteration of the parties' legal relationship and thus permit an award. The "catalyst theory," however, allows an award where there is no judicially sanctioned change in the parties' legal relationship. A defendant's voluntary change in conduct, although per-


haps accomplishing what the plaintiff sought to achieve by the lawsuit, lacks the necessary judicial imprimatur on the change. The legislative history cited by petitioners is at best ambiguous as to the availability of the "catalyst theory"; and, particularly in view of the "American Rule," such history is clearly insufficient to alter the clear meaning of "prevailing party" in the fee-shifting statutes. Given this meaning, this Court need not determine which way petitioners' various policy arguments cut. pp. 602-610.

203 F.3d 819, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which THOMAS, J., joined, post, p. 610. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, SOUTER, and BREYER, JJ., joined, post, p. 622.

Webster J. Arceneaux III argued the cause for petitioners.

With him on the briefs was Brian A. Glasser.

Beth S. Brinkmann argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With her on the brief were former Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Solicitor General Underwood, Assistant Attorney General Lee, Jeffrey P. Minear, Jessica Dunsay Silver, and Kevin K. Russell.

David P. Cleek, Senior Deputy Attorney General of West Virginia, argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Darrell v: McGraw, Jr., Attorney General.*

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Friends of the Earth et al. by Bruce J. Terris, Carolyn Smith Pravlik, and Sarah A. Adams; and for Public Citizen et al. by Steven R. Shapiro, Harvey Grossman, Brian Wolfman, and Arthur B. Spitzer.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of Maryland et al. by J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, and Maureen M. Dove and Andrew H. Baida, Assistant Attorneys General, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows:

Bill Pryor of Alabama, Bill Lockyer of California, Ken Salazar of Colorado, M. Jane Brady of Delaware, Robert A. Butterworth of Florida, James E. Ryan of Illinois, Carla J. Stovall of Kansas, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, Thomas F. Reilly of Massachusetts, Jeremiah W (Jay) Nixon of Missouri, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Ne-

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

A prevailing party that is entitled to an award of attorney's fees and costs must be a party that has received a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree.


A West Virginia state regulation provided that residents of nursing homes needed to be sufficiently ambulatory so that they could escape from a building in a fire. Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. violated this rule and received a cease and desist order from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources that required it to close its assisted living facilities unless it complied with the regulation. Buckhannon then brought a claim against the Department, arguing that the regulation violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1990. It sought declaratory relief as well as an injunction against the enforcement of the regulation.

The action was dismissed as moot after the state legislature removed this regulation with later legislation. Arguing that it was the prevailing party in the case, Buckhannon sought attorney's fees under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, but the court denied these.



  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas

The use of "prevailing party" in the federal law should be interpreted to mean a party that has received a remedy from the court, such as an enforceable judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree. There must be some action that materially alters the legal relationship between the parties. Attorney fees may not be issued when the court does not act to change the relationship between the parties. For example, a defendant may choose to change its conduct in a way that removes the plaintiff's grievance, thus achieving the goal of the lawsuit, but attorney fees would not be appropriate if the court never took an action. In general, the American Rule provides that explicit statutory authority must support an award of attorney fees, so relying on vague suggestions in the legislative history is not sufficient to award them here.


  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • David H. Souter
  • Stephen G. Breyer

A court-approved settlement should be enough to justify an award of attorney fees, rather than receiving a judgment on the merits or having the court issue a finding of wrongdoing. Most federal courts use the catalyst rule that the majority rejects, and this rule best fits the purpose of the fee-shifting statutes enacted by Congress in the area of civil rights.


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • Clarence Thomas

Case Commentary

Settlement agreements enforced through a consent decree are the only main exception to the rule that only a judgment on the merits can give rise to an award of attorney's fees.

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