Bradley v. School Board of City of Richmond 8212 1322

Decision Date15 May 1974
Docket NumberNo. 72,72
Citation416 U.S. 696,94 S.Ct. 2006,40 L.Ed.2d 476
PartiesCarolyn BRADLEY et al., Petitioners, v. SCHOOL BOARD OF CITY OF RICHMOND et al. —1322
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The District Court on May 26, 1971, awarded to the successful plaintiff-petitioners, Negro parents and guardians, in this protracted litigation involving the desegregation of the Richmond, Virginia, public schools, expenses and attorneys' fees for services rendered from March 10, 1970, to January 29, 1971. On March 10, 1970, petitioners had moved in the District Court for additional relief under Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430, 88 S.Ct. 1689, 20 L.Ed.2d 716, in which this Court held that a freedom-of-choice plan (like the one previously approved for the Richmond schools) was not acceptable where methods promising speedier and more effective conversion to a unitary school system were reasonably available. Respondent School Board then conceded that the plan under which it had been operating was not constitutional. After considering a series of alternative and interim plans, the District Court on April 5, 1971, approved the Board's third proposed plan, and the order allowing fees followed shortly thereafter. Noting the absence of any explicit statutory authorization for such an award in this type of case, the court predicated its ruling on the grounds (1) that actions taken and defenses made by the School Board during the relevant period resulted in an unreasonable delay in desegregation of the schools, causing petitioners to incur substantial expenditures to secure their constitutional rights, and (2) that plaintiffs in actions of this kind were acting as 'private attorneys general,' Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402, 88 S.Ct. 964, 966, 19 L.Ed.2d 1263, in leading the School Board into compliance with the law, thus effectuating the constitutional guarantees of nondiscrimination. The Court of Appeals reversed, stressing that 'if such awards are to be made to promote the public policy expressed in legislative action, they should be authorized by Congress and not by the courts.' Following initial submission of the case to the Court of Appeals but before its decision, Congress enacted § 718 of the Education Amendments of 1972, which granted a federal court authority to award the prevailing party areasonable attorney's fee when appropriate upon entry of a final order in a school desegregation case, the applicability of which to this and other litigation the court then considered. In the other cases, the court held that § 718 did not apply to services rendered prior to July 1, 1972, the effective date of § 718, and in this case reasoned that there were no orders pending or appealable on either May 26, 1971, when the District Court made its fee award, or on July 1, 1972, and that therefore § 718 could not be used to sustain the award. Held: Section 718 can be applied to attorneys' services that were rendered before that provision was enacted, in a situation like the one here involved where the propriety of the fee award was pending resolution on appeal when the statute became law. Pp. 710—724.

(a) An appellate court must apply the law in effect at the time it renders its decision, Thorpe v. Housing Authority of City of Durham, 393 U.S. 268, 281, 89 S.Ct. 518, 525, 21 L.Ed.2d 474, unless such application would work a manifest injustice or there is statutory direction or legislative history to the contrary. Pp. 711—716.

(b) Such injustice could result 'in mere private cases between individuals,' United States v. Schooner Peggy, 1 Cranch 103, 110, 2 L.Ed. 49, the determinative factors being the nature and identity of the parties, the nature of their rights, and the nature of the impact of the change in law upon those rights. Upon consideration of those aspects here (see infra, (c)(e)), it cannot be said that the application of the statute would cause injustice. Pp. 716—721.

(c) There was a disparity in the respective abilities of the parties to protect themselves, and the litigation did not involve merely private interests. Petitioners rendered substantial service to the community and to the Board itself by bringing it into compliance with its constitutional mandate and thus acting as a 'private attorney general' in vindicating public policy. Pp. 718 719.

(d) Application of § 718 does not affect any matured or unconditional rights, the School Board having no unconditional right to the funds allocated to it by the taxpayers. Pp. 716—721.

(e) No increase burden was imposed since the statute did not alter the Board's constitutional responsibility for providing pupils with a nondiscriminatory education, and there is no change in the substantive obligation of the parties. Pp. 718—719.

(f) The Court of Appeals erred in concluding that § 718 was inapplicable to the petitioners' request for fees because there was no final order pending unresolved on appeal, since the language of § 718 is not to be read to mean that a fee award must be made simultaneously with the entry of a desegregation order, and a district court must have discretion in a school desegregation case to award fees and costs incident to the final disposition of interim matters. Pp. 721—723.

(g) Since the District Court made an allowance for services to January 29, 1971, when petitioners were not yet the 'prevailing party' within the meaning of § 718, the fee award should be recomputed to April 5, 1971, or thereafter. Pp. 723—724.

472 F.2d 318, vacated and remanded.

William T. Coleman, Jr., Philadelphia, Pa., for petitioners.

George B. Little, Richmond, Va., for respondents.

Mr. Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this protracted school desegregation litigation, the District Court awarded the plaintiff-petitioners expenses and attorneys' fees for services rendered from March 10, 1970, to January 29, 1971. 53 F.R.D. 28 (ED Va.1971). The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, one judge dissenting, reversed. 472 F.2d 318 (1972). We granted certiorari, 412 U.S. 937, 93 S.Ct. 2773, 37 L.Ed.2d 396 (1973), to determine whether the allowance of attorneys' fees was proper. Pertinent to the resolution of the issue is the enactment in 1972 of § 718 of Title VII, the Emergency School Aid Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1617 (1970 ed., Supp. II), as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, Pub.L. 92—318, 86 Stat. 235, 369.


The suit was instituted in 1961 by 11 Negro parents and guardians against the School Board of the city of Richmond, Virginia, as a class action under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, to desegregate the public schools. On March 16, 1964, after extended consideration,1 the District Court approved a 'freedom of choice' plan by which every pupil was permitted to attend the school of the pupil's or the parents' choice, limited only by a time requirement for the transfer application and by lack of capacity at the school to which transfer was sought. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit, sit- ting en banc, affirmed, with two judges dissenting in part, and held that the plan satisfied the Board's constitutional obligations. 345 F.2d 310 (1965). The court saw no error in the trial court's refusal to allow the plaintiffs' attorneys more than a nominal fee ($75). Id., at 321. The dissenters referred to the fee as 'egregiously inadequate.' Id., at 324. On petition for a writ of certiorari, this Court, per curiam, 382 U.S. 103, 86 S.Ct. 224, 15 L.Ed.2d 187 (1965), summarily held that the petitioners improperly had been denied a full evidentiary hearing on their claim that a racially based faculty allocation system rendered the plan constitutionally inadequate under Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873 (1954). In vacating the judgment of the Court of Appeals and in remanding the case, we expressly declined to pass on the merits of the desegregation plan and noted that further judicial review following the hearing was not precluded. 382 U.S. at 105, 86 S.Ct. at 225.

After the required hearing, the District Court, on March 30, 1966, approved a revised 'freedom of choice' plan2 submitted by the Board and agreed to by the peti- tioners. App. 17a. It provided that if the steps taken by the Board 'do not produce significant results during the 1966—67 school year, it is recognized that the freedom of choice plan will have to be modified.' Id., at 23a. This plan was in operation about four years. While it was in effect, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430, 88 S.Ct. 1689, 20 L.Ed.2d 716 (1968), was decided. The Court there held that where methods promising speedier and more effective conversion to a unitary system were reasonably available, a freedom-of-choice plan was not acceptable. Id., at 439—441, 88 S.Ct., at 1694—1696.

Thereafter, on March 10, 1970, petitioners filed with the District Court a motion for further relief in the light of the opinions of this Court in Green, supra, in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, 396 U.S. 19, 90 S.Ct. 29, 24 L.Ed.2d 19 (1969), and in Carter v. West Feliciana Parish School Board, 396 U.S. 290, 90 S.Ct. 608, 24 L.Ed.2d 477 (1970). Specifically, petitioners asked that the court 'require the defendant school board forthwith to put into effect' a plan that would 'promptly and realistically convert the public schools of the City of Richmond into a unitary non-racial system,' and that the court 'award a reasonable fee to (petitioners') counsel.' App. 25a. The court then ordered the Board to advise the court whether the public schools were being operated 'in accordance with the constitutional requirements . . . enunciated by the United States Supreme Court.' Id., at 27a. The Board, by a statement promptly filed with the District Court, averred that it had operated the school system to the best of its knowledge and belief in accordance with the decree of March 30, 1966, but that it has ...

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