Hewitt v. Helms, 85-1630

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. MARSHALL
Citation96 L.Ed.2d 654,107 S.Ct. 2672,482 U.S. 755
PartiesLowell D. HEWITT, et al., Petitioners v. Aaron HELMS
Docket NumberNo. 85-1630,85-1630
Decision Date19 June 1987

482 U.S. 755
107 S.Ct. 2672
96 L.Ed.2d 654
Lowell D. HEWITT, et al., Petitioners


Aaron HELMS.

No. 85-1630.
Argued March 4, 1987.
Decided June 19, 1987.

After more than seven weeks in administrative segregation pending an investigation into his possible involvement in a state prison riot, respondent inmate was found guilty of misconduct by a prison hearing committee and sentenced to six months of disciplinary confinement solely on the basis of an officer's report of the statements of an undisclosed informant. Respondent filed suit against petitioner prison officials for damages and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but was released on parole before any decision was rendered. Subsequently, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's entry of summary judgment against respondent, finding, inter alia, that his misconduct conviction constituted a denial of due process since it was based solely on hearsay. The District Court was instructed to enter summary judgment for respondent unless petitioners could establish an immunity defense, and was given authority to determine the appropriateness and availability of the relief respondent requested. On remand, respondent pursued only his damages claim. The District Court granted summary judgment for petitioners on the basis of qualified immunity, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. While the appeal was pending, the State Corrections Bureau (Bureau) revised its regulations to include procedures for the use of confidential source information in inmate disciplinary proceedings. The District Court then denied respondent's claim for attorney's fees on the ground that he was not a "prevailing party" as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1988, but the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that its prior holding that his constitutional rights had been violated was "a form of judicial relief." In the alternative, the court directed the District Court to reconsider whether respondent's suit was a "catalyst" for the amendment of the Bureau's regulations.

Held: Respondent is not a "prevailing party" eligible for attorney's fees under § 1988. A plaintiff must receive at least some relief on the merits of his claim before he can be said to "prevail." Respondent obtained neither a damages award, injunction, or declaratory judgment, nor a consent decree, settlement, or other relief without benefit of a formal judgment. Pp. 759-764.

(a) A favorable judicial statement of law in the course of litigation that results in judgment against the plaintiff does not suffice to render him a

Page 756

"prevailing party." The Court of Appeals' treatment of its initial constitutional holding as "a form of judicial relief" presumably a form of declaratory judgment—was in error, since the court neither granted nor ordered relief of any kind. Even if respondent's nonmonetary claims were not rendered moot by his release from prison, and it could be said that those claims were kept alive by his interest in expunging his misconduct conviction from his prison record, his counsel never took the steps necessary to have a declaratory judgment or expungement order properly entered. The argument that the Court of Appeals' initial holding is a "vindication of rights" that is at least the equivalent of declaratory relief ignores the fact that a judicial decree is not the end of the judicial process but is rather the means of prompting some action (or cessation of action) by the defendant. Here, respondent obtained nothing from petitioners. Moreover, equating statements of law (even legal holdings en route to a final judgment for the defendant) with declaratory judgments has the practical effect of depriving the defendant of any valid defenses that a court might take into account in deciding whether to enter a declaratory judgment. Furthermore, the same considerations that influence courts to issue declaratory judgments may not enter into the decision whether to include statements of law in opinions. However, if they do, the court's decision is not appealable in the same manner as its entry of a declaratory judgment. Pp. 759-763.

(b) The alternative argument that a hearing is required to determine whether respondent's suit prompted the Bureau to amend its regulations also fails. Even if respondent can demonstrate a clear causal link between his lawsuit and the amendment, and can "prevail" by having the State take action that his complaint did not in terms request, he did not obtain redress from that amendment since he had long since been released from prison at the time it was issued. Pp. 763—764.

780 F.2d 367 (CA3 1986), reversed.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 764.

Thomas G. Saylor, Jr., Somerset, Pa., for petitioners.

Page 757

Lawrence G. Wallace, Washington, D.C., for United States, as amicus curiae supporting petitioners, by special leave of Court.

Robert Harold Vesely, Williamsport, Pa., for respondent.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the peculiar-sounding question whether a party who litigates to judgment and loses on all of his claims can nonetheless be a "prevailing party" for purposes of an award of attorney's fees.

Following a prison riot at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, inmate Aaron Helms was placed in administrative segregation, a form of restrictive custody, pending an investigation into his possible involvement in the disturbance. More than seven weeks later, a prison hearing committee, relying solely on an officer's report of the testimony of an undisclosed informant, found Helms guilty of misconduct for striking a corrections officer during the riot. Helms was sentenced to six months of disciplinary restrictive confinement.

While still incarcerated, Helms brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against a number of prison officials, alleging that the lack of a prompt hearing on his misconduct charges and his conviction for misconduct on the basis of uncorroborated hearsay testimony violated his rights to due process. The prison officials asserted qualified immunity from suit and contested the constitutional claims on the merits. Before any decision was rendered, Helms was released from prison on parole.

Nearly six months after Helms' release, the District Court rendered summary judgment against him on his constitu-

Page 758

tional claims without passing on the defendants' assertions of immunity. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed, finding that "Helms was denied due process unless he was afforded a hearing, within a reasonable time of his initial [segregative] confinement, to determine whether he represented the type of 'risk' warranting administrative detention," Helms v. Hewitt, 655 F.2d 487, 500 (1981) (Helms I ), and that he "suffered a denial of due process by being convicted on a misconduct charge when the only evidence offered against him was a hearsay recital, by the charging officer, of an uncorroborated report of an unidentified informant." Id., at 502. The District Court was instructed to enter summary judgment for Helms on the latter claim unless the defendants could establish an immunity defense.

Before the proceedings on remand could take place, we granted certiorari to determine whether Helms' administrative segregation violated the Due Process Clause. We concluded that the prison's informal, nonadversarial procedures for determining the need for restrictive custody provided all the process that is due when prisoners are removed from the general prison population. Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460, 103 S.Ct. 864, 74 L.Ed.2d 675 (1983). Certiorari was not sought on, and we did not decide, the question whether Helms' misconduct conviction violated his constitutional rights. When the case was returned to the Court of Appeals, it therefore reaffirmed its instruction to the District Court to enter judgment for Helms on this claim unless the defendants established a defense of official immunity. Helms v. Hewitt, 712 F.2d 48 (1983) (Helms II ).

In the District Court, Helms pursued only his claims for damages. The District Court granted summary judgment for all the defendants on the basis of qualified immunity, because the constitutional right at issue was not "clearly established," Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982), at the time of Helms' misconduct hearing. See App. 22a-47a. Helms appealed, seeking both damages and expungement of his misconduct conviction. The defendants argued to the

Page 759

Court of Appeals that all claims for injunctive and declaratory relief had been waived by the failure to pursue them in the District Court, and in any event were moot because Helms was no longer in prison. While that appeal was pending, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Corrections revised its regulations to include for the first time procedures for the use of confidential-source information in inmate disciplinary proceedings. See BC-ADM 801 Administrative Directive: Inmate Disciplinary Procedures § V(F) (1984), App. 101a-102a (Directive 801). The District Court's decision was affirmed without opinion. Helms v. Hewitt, 745 F.2d 46 (1984) (Helms III ).

Helms then sought attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides in relevant part: "In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of [§ 1983], 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." The District Court denied the claim on the ground that Helms was not a "prevailing party": the defendants' official immunity precluded a damages award, Helms' release from prison made his claims for injunctive relief moot, and he could not claim that his suit was a "catalyst" for the...

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