Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
The standard for when attorney fees should be awarded to a prevailing party in a civil rights lawsuit has been clarified by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Interpreting U.S. Supreme Court case law on the issue, the 2nd Circuit said a consent decree or judgment on the merits are not the only situations that carry the necessary “judicial imprimatur” in determining whether a party has “prevailed,” which is the key to a fee award. The circuit found that fees can be awarded where a court retains jurisdiction over a private settlement agreement. Judge Wilfred Feinberg’s decision in Roberson v. Giuliani, 02-7306, involved a lawsuit that challenged how city and state agencies handled applications for food stamps, Medicaid and public assistance benefits. Southern District of New York Judge Denise Cote granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs on their claim that the city violated federal law through its method of investigating joint applications for food stamps and public assistance. Six remaining claims were then settled, with the city agreeing to make changes in the system, but denying any liability. The plaintiffs’ lawyers, the New York Legal Assistance Group, sought $140,060 in attorney fees and costs. But Judge Cote found that they were not “prevailing parties” under 42 U.S.C. � 1988, which grants authority to award fees for a civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Cote cited the standard announced for prevailing parties by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home Inc. v. W. Va. Dep’t of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598 (2001). In Buckhannon, the Court rejected what is called the “catalyst theory,” under which a plaintiff is a prevailing party where they achieve “the desired result because the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant’s conduct.” The Supreme Court said the catalyst theory was wrong because it “allows an award where there is no judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship between the parties.” Examples of relief that carry “sufficient judicial imprimatur,” the Court said, are judgments on the merits and consent decrees. Judge Cote said her continuing jurisdiction over the Roberson agreement to enforce its terms did not “constitute a ‘judicial sanctioning’ of the alteration of their legal relationship such that the plaintiffs can be considered prevailing parties under the Buckhannon standard.” THREE CASES On the appeal, Judge Feinberg said three cases in the circuit have viewed Buckhannon in a manner that might preclude attorney fees unless there is a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree. But those three cases, Feinberg noted, “were all catalyst theory cases,” none of which involved the enforcement of a settlement agreement. “We therefore did not fully consider the different types of relief that might satisfy the Buckhannon court’s general statement of its holding — that there must be a judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship between the parties,” Feinberg said. It seems clear, the judge said, that the high court’s statement about judgments on the merits and court-ordered consent decrees was not meant to be an exclusive list, but merely “examples of the type of judicial action that could convey prevailing party status.” “We therefore join the majority of courts to have considered this issue since Buckhannon in concluding that judicial action other than a judgment on the merits or a consent decree can support an award of attorney fees, so long as such action carries with it sufficient judicial imprimatur,” he said. In Roberson, he said, while the district court “took the correct general approach, its analysis did not fully appreciate the implications of its retention of jurisdiction over enforcement” of the settlement agreement. The retention of that jurisdiction, he said, “is not significantly different from a consent decree and entails a level of judicial sanction sufficient to support an award of attorney fees.” Judges Richard J. Cardamone and Robert D. Sack joined in the 2nd Circuit opinion. Randal S. Jeffrey and Yisroel Schulman of the New York Legal Assistance Group represented the plaintiffs. Assistant Corporation Counsels Caroline M. Brown, Kristin M. Helmers and Helen P. Brown represented New York City.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.