532 U.S. 598 (2001), 99-1848, Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dept. of Health & Human Resources

Docket Nº:Case No. 99-1848
Citation:532 U.S. 598, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855
Party Name:BUCKHANNON BOARD & CARE HOME, INC., et al., v. WEST VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN RESOURCES et al.
Case Date:May 29, 2001
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 598

532 U.S. 598 (2001)

121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855

BUCKHANNON BOARD & CARE HOME, INC., et al.,

v.

WEST VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN RESOURCES et al.

Case No. 99-1848

United States Supreme Court

May 29, 2001

Argued February 27, 2001

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

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 "self-preservation" 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 perhaps

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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.[*]

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Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

Numerous federal statutes allow courts to award attorney's fees and costs to the "prevailing party." The question presented here is whether this term includes a party that has failed to secure a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree, but has nonetheless achieved the desired result because the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct. We hold that it does not.

Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc., which operates care homes that provide assisted living to their residents, failed an inspection by the West Virginia Office of the State Fire Marshal because some of the residents were incapable of "self-preservation" as defined under state law. See W.Va. Code §§ 16-5H-1, 16-5H-2 (1998) (requiring that all residents of residential board and care homes be capable of "self-preservation," or capable of moving themselves "from situations involving imminent danger, such as fire"); W.Va. Code of State Rules, tit. 87, ser. 1,§ 14.07(1) (1995) (same). On October 28, 1997, after receiving cease-and-desist orders requiring the closure of its residential care facilities within 30 days, Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc., on behalf of itself and other similarly situated homes and residents (hereinafter petitioners), brought suit in the United States

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District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia against the State of West Virginia, two of its agencies, and 18 individuals (hereinafter respondents), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief[1] that the "self-preservation" requirement violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA), 102 Stat. 1619, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 104 Stat. 327, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.

Respondents agreed to stay enforcement of the cease-and-desist orders pending resolution of the case and the parties began discovery. In 1998, the West Virginia Legislature enacted two bills eliminating the "self-preservation" requirement, see S. 627, I 1998 W.Va. Acts 983-986 (amending regulations); H. R. 4200, II 1998 W.Va. Acts 1198-1199 (amending statute), and respondents moved to dismiss the case as moot. The District Court granted the motion, finding that the 1998 legislation had eliminated the allegedly offensive provisions and that there was no indication that the West Virginia Legislature would repeal the amendments.[2]

Petitioners requested attorney's fees as the "prevailing party" under the FHAA, 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(2) ("[T]he court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee and costs"), and ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12205 ("[T]he court . . . , in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs"). Petitioners argued that they were entitled to attorney's fees under 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. Although

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most Courts of Appeals recognize the "catalyst theory,"[3 ] the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected it in S-1 and S-2 v. State Bd. of Ed. of N. C., 21 F.3d 49, 51 (1994) (en banc) ("A person may not be a 'prevailing party' . . . except by virtue of having obtained an enforceable judgment, consent decree, or settlement giving some of the legal relief sought"). The District Court accordingly denied the motion and, for the same reason, the Court of Appeals affirmed in an unpublished, per curiam opinion. Judgt. order reported at 203 F.3d 819 (CA4 2000).

To resolve the disagreement amongst the Courts of Appeals, we granted certiorari, 530 U.S. 1304 (2000), and now affirm.

In the United States, parties are ordinarily required to bear their own attorney's fees—the prevailing party is not entitled to collect from the loser. See Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 247 (1975). Under this "American Rule," we 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 (1994). Congress, however, has authorized the award of attorney's fees to the "prevailing party" in numerous statutes in addition to those at issue here, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 259, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e- 5(k), the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1975, 89 Stat. 402, 42 U.S.C. §1973 l (e), and the Civil Rights Attorney's

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Fees Awards Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2641, 42 U.S.C. § 1988. See generally Marek v. Chesny, 473 U.S. 1, 43-51 (1985) (Appendix to opinion of Brennan, J., dissenting).[4]

In designating those parties eligible for an award of litigation costs, Congress employed the term "prevailing party," a legal term of art. Black's Law Dictionary 1145 (7th ed.1999) defines "prevailing party" as "[a] party in whose favor a judgment is rendered, regardless of the amount of damages awarded ‹in certain cases, the court will award attorney's fees to the prevailing party›. — Also termed successful party. " This view that a "prevailing party" is one who has been awarded some relief by the court can be distilled from our prior cases.[5]

In Hanrahan v. Hampton, 446 U.S. 754, 758 (1980) (per curiam), we reviewed the legislative history of § 1988 and found that "Congress intended to permit the interim award of counsel fees only when a party has prevailed on the merits of at least some of his claims." Our "[r]espect for ordinary language requires that a plaintiff receive at least some relief on the merits of his claim before he can be said to prevail."

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