479 U.S. 6 (1986), 85-767, North Carolina Department of Transportation v. Crest Street Community Council, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 85-767
Citation:479 U.S. 6, 107 S.Ct. 336, 93 L.Ed.2d 188, 55 U.S.L.W. 4001
Party Name:North Carolina Department of Transportation v. Crest Street Community Council, Inc.
Case Date:November 04, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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479 U.S. 6 (1986)

107 S.Ct. 336, 93 L.Ed.2d 188, 55 U.S.L.W. 4001

North Carolina Department of Transportation

v.

Crest Street Community Council, Inc.

No. 85-767

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 4, 1986

Argued Oct. 7, 1986

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. §1988, provides that "[i]n any action or proceeding to enforce" certain enumerated civil rights laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the court may award attorney's fees to the prevailing party, other than the United States. Title VI prohibits "any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance" from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Respondents filed an administrative complaint with the United States Department of Transportation, challenging petitioner North Carolina Department of Transportation's proposed extension of a largely federally funded major expressway through an established, predominantly black neighborhood in the city of Durham as violative of Title VI. Subsequent negotiations resulted, after five years, in a Final Mitigation Plan executed by petitioners, respondents, and the city that resolved the controversy. In the meantime, construction of the highway extension had been enjoined by the Federal District Court in an unrelated action alleging violations of certain federal statutes that did not include any civil rights laws. Respondents in the instant case moved to intervene in that action and filed a proposed complaint asserting Title VI violations. The District Court subsequently entered a consent judgment dissolving the injunction and dismissing the action and also respondents' Title VI claims on the condition that petitioners implement the Final Mitigation Plan. The following day, that Plan was executed. Respondents then filed an action in District Court for attorney's fees under §1988 for services performed by their counsel in preparing the administrative complaint and in negotiating resolution of the dispute. The District Court granted summary judgment for petitioners and dismissed the action. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that §1988 covered the actions taken by respondents subsequent to the filing of the administrative complaint, and that §1988 allowed a separate action for attorney's fees.

Held:

1. Under §1988's plain language and legislative history, only a court in an action to enforce one of the civil rights laws listed in §1988 may

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award attorney's fees. Here, the action for attorney's fees is not, and was never, all action to enforce any of those laws. Pp. 11-15.

2. Respondents are not entitled to claim attorney's fees by virtue of their proposed complaint and motion to intervene in the unrelated action. They did not seek attorney's fees in that action, but rather agreed that their Title VI claims in the proposed complaint would be dismissed. The court that considered the attorney's fees claim was not adjudicating an action to enforce Title VI. Pp. 15-16.

769 F.2d 1025, reversed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE, POWELL, STEVENS, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 16.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a court may award attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. §1988, in a separate federal action not to enforce any of the civil rights laws listed in §1988, but solely to recover attorney's fees.

I

In 1957, the Durham City Council advised the North Carolina State Highway [107 S.Ct. 338] Commission of the need for a major east-west expressway in the city. North Carolina Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, Final Environmental Impact Statement No. FHWA-NC-EIS-72-

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13-F, Historical Resume 15 (1982). Over the years, parts of this highway were completed. In 1976, petitioner North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) resumed planning an extension of the east-west highway. The proposed extension was to run through the Crest Street community, an established, predominantly black neighborhood in Durham. The extension would have displaced the community park and church and many of the residents of the neighborhood. Respondents, Residents of Crest Street Community and the Save Our Church and Community Committee, two unincorporated associations, retained the North Central Legal Assistance Program to represent them in regard to the proposed highway extension. Despite respondents' opposition to the extension plans, petitioners issued a revised draft Environmental Impact Statement that continued to propose that the extension run through the Crest Street community. App. 57.

The costs of the proposed extension were to be covered in large part by federal funds. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits "any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance" from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, and directs each federal agency authorized to extend federal financial assistance to issue regulations to effectuate this mandate, § 2000d-1. Compliance with § 2000d may be effected by the termination of federal funds, or by any other means authorized by law; however,

no such action shall be taken until the department or agency concerned has advised the [recipient] of the failure to comply with the requirement and has determined that compliance cannot be secured by voluntary means.

§ 2000d-1.

Pursuant to Title VI, the Department of Transportation (DOT) promulgated regulations requiring recipients of federal funds to provide assurances of compliance, periodic compliance reports, and access to information relevant to compliance. 49 CFR § 21.9 (1985). DOT regulations also state

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that

[a]ny person who believes himself or any specific class of persons to be subjected to discrimination prohibited by [Title VI and the DOT regulations] may . . . file with the Secretary a written complaint.

§ 21.11 (b). The Secretary is required to investigate "whenever a compliance review, report, complaint, or any other information indicates a possible failure to comply with this part." § 21.11 (c).

In September, 1978, respondents filed a complaint with DOT. App. 73-89. Respondents challenged petitioners' proposed extension as violative of Title VI, and requested that NCDOT be prohibited from planning or constructing the proposed highway through the Crest Street community. DOT conducted an investigation, met with representatives of petitioners and of respondents, and obtained documents from petitioners and respondents. In February, 1980, the DOT Director of Civil Rights informed NCDOT that, based on DOT's "preliminary judgments," there was

reasonable cause to believe that the construction of the Expressway along the alignment proposed in the Draft [Environmental Impact Statement] would constitute a prima facie violation of Title VI and, in particular, Section 21.5(b)(3) of our Departmental Title VI regulation.

Id. at 97-99. DOT urged petitioners to attempt to negotiate a resolution to the controversy. After negotiations spanning 15 months, in February, 1982, petitioners, respondents, and the city of Durham reached a preliminary agreement on the highway design and mitigation of the adverse impact of the project, but continued to negotiate toward a final plan.

Since 1973, construction of the highway extension had been enjoined by an order entered in the unrelated proceedings in ECOS, Inc. v. Brinegar, No. C-352-D-72 (MDNC, Feb. 20, 1973). The plaintiffs in ECOS were a nonprofit educational ecological [107 S.Ct. 339] organization, an association of Duke University students and some of its members, and two Durham residents. The action alleged violations of the Federal-Aid Highway Act, 23 U.S.C. §§ 128, 138, the Department of

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Transportation Act of 1966, 49 U.S.C. App. § 1653(f), and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, 42 U.S.C. § 4332. The order enjoined construction until the defendants, state and federal transportation officials and a construction company, achieved full compliance with the above statutes. In August, 1982, NCDOT moved to dissolve the ECOS injunction. Respondent Crest Street Community Council, Inc., and an individual Crest Street resident moved to intervene in the ECOS action and filed a proposed complaint asserting Title VI violations. App. 103-107. While the motion to intervene was pending, petitioners and respondents continued negotiations, and reached agreement on a Final Mitigation Plan. On December 14, 1982, the District Court entered a consent judgment in the ECOS action. The consent judgment dissolved the injunction and dismissed the action. It also dismissed with prejudice respondents' Title VI claims on the condition that petitioners implement the Final Mitigation Plan, although the District Court had never ruled on the Crest Street Community Council, Inc., motion to intervene. The following day, the Final Mitigation Plan was formally executed by petitioners, respondents, and the city of Durham.

The Plan set out comprehensive requirements for NCDOT and the city of Durham to mitigate the impact of the highway. Under the Plan, NCDOT agreed to move the proposed highway right-of-way and modify an interchange so as to preserve the community church and park. The Plan also required NCDOT and the city of Durham to develop and provide a new park and community site in the same area. Respondents' counsel had spent more than 1,200 hours...

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