473 U.S. 159 (1985), 84-849, Kentucky v. Graham,

Docket Nº:No. 84-849
Citation:473 U.S. 159, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114, 53 U.S.L.W. 4966
Party Name:Kentucky v. Graham,
Case Date:June 28, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 159

473 U.S. 159 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114, 53 U.S.L.W. 4966

Kentucky

v.

Graham,

No. 84-849

United States Supreme Court

June 28, 1985

Argued April 16, 1985

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondents were arrested following the warrantless raid of a house in Kentucky by local and state police officers who were seeking a murder suspect. Claiming a deprivation of federal rights allegedly resulting from the police's use of excessive force and other constitutional violations accompanying the raid, respondents filed suit in Federal District Court under, inter alia, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking money damages. Among the named defendants were the Commissioner of the Kentucky State Police, "individually and as Commissioner," and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which was sued only for attorney's fees should respondents eventually prevail. The District Court, relying on the Eleventh Amendment, dismissed the Commonwealth as a party. On the second day of trial, the case was settled in favor of respondents, who then moved that the Commonwealth pay their costs and attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that, in any action to enforce § 1983, the court may allow "the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." The District Court granted the motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 1988 does not allow attorney's fees to be recovered from a governmental entity when a plaintiff sues governmental employees only in their personal capacities and prevails; accordingly, since this case was necessarily litigated as a [105 S.Ct. 3102] personal-capacity and not as an official-capacity action, it was error to award fees against the Commonwealth. Pp. 163-171.

(a) While § 1988 does not define the parties who must bear the costs, the logical place to look for recovery of fees is to the losing party. Liability on the merits and responsibility for fees go hand in hand. Where a defendant has not been prevailed against, either because of legal immunity or on the merits, § 1988 does not authorize a fee award against that defendant. Pp. 163-165.

(b) Personal-capacity suits seek to impose personal liability upon a government officer for actions he takes under color of state law, whereas official-capacity suits against an officer are generally treated as suits against the governmental entity of which the officer is an agent. With this distinction in mind, it is clear that a suit against a government officer

Page 160

in his or her personal capacity cannot lead to imposition of fee liability upon the governmental entity. Pp. 165-168.

(c) To hold that fees can be recovered from a governmental entity following victory in a personal-capacity action against government officials would be inconsistent with the rule that the entity cannot be made liable on the merits under § 1983 on a respondeat superior basis. Nothing in § 1988's history suggests that fee liability was intended to be imposed on that basis. Section 198 simply does not create fee liability where merits liability is nonexistent. P. 168.

(d) Although the State Police Commissioner was named as a defendant in both his "individual" and "official" capacities and the Commonwealth was named as a defendant for the limited purpose of a fee award, there can be no doubt, given Eleventh Amendment doctrine, that the action did not seek to impose monetary liability on the Commonwealth. Absent waiver by a State or valid congressional override, the Eleventh Amendment bars a damages action against a State in federal court, a bar that remains in effect when state officials are sued for damages in their official capacity. Accordingly, an official-capacity damages action could not have been maintained against the Commissioner in federal court. Respondents cannot seek damages from the Commonwealth simply by suing Commonwealth officials in their official capacity, nor did respondents' action on the merits become a suit against the Commonwealth by simply naming it as a defendant on the limited issue of fee liability. Pp. 168-170.

(e) Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, did not alter the basic philosophy of § 1988 that fees and merits liability run together, nor did it hold or suggest that fees are available from a governmental entity simply because a government official has been prevailed against in his or her personal capacity. Pp. 170-171.

742 F.2d 1455, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 161

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether 42 U.S.C. § 1988 allows attorney's fees to be recovered from a governmental entity when a plaintiff sues governmental employees only in their personal capacities and prevails.

I

On November 7, 1979, a Kentucky state trooper was murdered. Suspicion quickly focused on Clyde Graham, whose stepmother's car was found near the site of the slaying and whose driver's license and billfold were discovered in nearby bushes. That evening, 30 to 40 city, county, and state police officers converged on the house of Graham's father in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Without a warrant, the police entered the home twice and eventually [105 S.Ct. 3103] arrested all the occupants, who are the six respondents here. Graham was not among them.1 According to respondents, they were severely beaten, terrorized, illegally searched, and falsely arrested. Kenneth Brandenburgh, the Commissioner of the State Police and the highest ranking law enforcement officer in Kentucky, allegedly was directly involved in carrying out at least one of the raids. An investigation by the Kentucky Attorney General's office later concluded that the police had used excessive force and that a "complete breakdown" in police discipline had created an "uncontrolled" situation. App. to Brief for Respondents 21-22.

Alleging a deprivation of a number of federal rights, respondents filed suit in Federal District Court.2 Their complaint

Page 162

sought only money damages and named as defendants various local and state law enforcement officers, the city of Elizabethtown, and Hardin County, Kentucky. Also made defendants were Commissioner Brandenburgh, "individually and as Commissioner of the Bureau of State Police," and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The Commonwealth was sued, not for damages on the merits, but only for attorney's fees should the plaintiffs eventually prevail.3 Shortly after the complaint was filed, the District Court, relying on the Eleventh Amendment, dismissed the Commonwealth as a party. Based on its Attorney General's report, the Commonwealth refused to defend any of the individual defendants, including Commissioner Brandenburgh, or to pay their litigation expenses.

On the second day of trial, the case was settled for $60,000.4 The settlement agreement, embodied in a court order dismissing the case, barred respondents from seeking attorney's fees from any of the individual defendants, but specifically preserved respondents' right to seek fees and court costs from the Commonwealth. Respondents then moved, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, that the Commonwealth pay their costs and attorney's fees. At a hearing on this motion, the Commonwealth argued that the fee request had to be

Page 163

denied as a matter of law, both because the Commonwealth had been dismissed as a party and because the Eleventh Amendment, in any event, barred such an award. Rejecting these arguments, the District Court ordered the Commonwealth to pay $58,521 in fees and more than $6,000 in costs and expenses.5 In a short per curiam opinion relying solely on this Court's decision in Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978), the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. Graham v. Wilson, 742 F.2d 1455 (1984).

We granted certiorari to address the proposition, rejected by at least two Courts [105 S.Ct. 3104] of Appeals,6 that fees can be recovered from a governmental entity when a plaintiff prevails in a suit against government employees in their personal capacities. 469 U.S. 1156 (1985). We now reverse.

II

This case requires us to unravel once again the distinctions between personal- and official-capacity suits, see Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464 (1985), this time in the context of fee awards under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. The relevant portion of § 1988, enacted as the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2641, provides:

In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 of this title, title IX of Public Law 92-318, or title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.

(Emphasis added.)

Page 164

If a plaintiff prevails in a suit covered by § 1988, fees should be awarded as costs "unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." S.Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 4 (1976); see Supreme Court of Virginia v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 446 U.S. 719, 737 (1980). Section 1988 does not, in so many words, define the parties who must bear these costs. Nonetheless, it is clear that the logical place to look for recovery of fees is to the losing party -- the party legally responsible for relief on the merits. That is the party who must pay the costs of the litigation, see generally Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 54(d),7 and it is clearly the party who should also bear fee liability under § 1988.

We recognized as much in Supreme Court of Virginia, supra. There a three-judge District Court had found the Virginia Supreme Court and its chief justice in his official capacity liable for promulgating, and...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP