Someone who wins a permanent injunction without any money damages in certain civil rights suits is usually a “prevailing party” for an award of attorney’s fees under a 1976 federal fee shifting law, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

The justices, in an unsigned opinion in Lefemine v. Wideman threw out a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in a case stemming from an abortion protest. A member of Columbia Christians for Life had sued local police officers, charging the officers had violated his First Amendment rights by threatening criminal sanctions if the group demonstrated with graphic signs at a busy intersection in Greenwood County, S.C.

A district court permanently enjoined the officers “from engaging in content-based restrictions on [Steven Lefemine's] display of graphic signs,” but refused Lefemine’s request for nominal damages and attorney’s fees under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, saying Lefemine was not a prevailing party because the relief awarded did not “alter the relative positions of the parties” and the injunction only “ordered defendants to comply with the law and safeguard [Lefemine's] constitutional rights in the future.”

In their unsigned opinion, the justices wrote, “A plaintiff ‘prevails,’ we have held, ‘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.’ And we have repeatedly held that an injunction or declaratory judgment, like a damages award, will usually satisfy that test.”

The injunction, explained the Court, worked the required material alteration in the parties’ relationship. “Before the ruling, the police intended to stop Lefemine from protesting with his signs; after the ruling, the police could not prevent him from demonstrating in that manner,” the opinion stated.

The Court remanded the case to determine whether any special circumstances existed that would make the fee award unjust.

Marcia Coyle can be contacted at mcoyle@alm.com.