Maher v. Gagne

Decision Date25 June 1980
Docket NumberNo. 78-1888,78-1888
Citation100 S.Ct. 2570,65 L.Ed.2d 653,448 U.S. 122
PartiesEdward W. MAHER, etc., Petitioner, v. Virginia GAGNE, etc
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondent is a recipient of benefits under Connecticut's federally funded Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. She brought this action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Connecticut's AFDC regulations denied her credit for substantial portions of her actual work-related expenses, thus reducing the level of her benefits, and that such regulations violated the Social Security Act and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ultimately, the case was settled and the District Court entered a consent decree that provided for a substantial increase in the standard allowances for work-related expenses and gave AFDC recipients the right to prove that their actual work-related expenses were in excess of the standard. The District Court then awarded respondent's counsel a fee pursuant to the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that in any action to enforce 42 U.S.C. § 1983, inter alia, 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 court held that respondent was entitled to fees under the Act because, in addition to her statutory claim, she had alleged constitutional claims that were sufficiently substantial to support federal jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held :

1. Under § 1988 the district courts' authority to award attorney's fees is not limited to cases in which § 1983 is invoked as a remedy for a constitutional violation or a violation of a federal statute providing for the protection of civil or equal rights. As the Court holds in Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 100 S.Ct. 2502, 65 L.Ed.2d 555, § 1988 applies to all types of § 1983 actions, including actions based solely on Social Security Act violations. Thus, even if respondent's claim could be characterized as arising solely out of a Social Security Act violation, this would not preclude the award of attorney's fees under § 1988. P. 128-129.

2. The fact that respondent prevailed through a settlement rather than through litigation does not preclude her from claiming attorney's fees as the "prevailing party" within the meaning of § 1988. And petitioner's contention that respondent did not gain sufficient relief through the consent decree to be considered the prevailing party is without merit in view of the District Court's contrary finding, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals. P. 129-130.

3. The District Court was not barred by the Eleventh Amendment from awarding attorney's fees against the State. Respondent alleged constitutional violations which both courts below held to be sufficiently substantial to support federal jurisdiction, and the constitutional issues remained in the case until the consent decree was entered. Under these circumstances, petitioner's Eleventh Amendment claim is foreclosed by Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 98 S.Ct. 2565, 57 L.Ed.2d 522. In Hutto, the Court rejected the argument that the general language of the Act was insufficient to remove an Eleventh Amendment barrier, noting that "this Court has never viewed the Eleventh Amendment as barring such awards, even in suits between States and individual litigants." Id., at 695, 98 S.Ct., at 2576. Moreover, even if the Eleventh Amendment would otherwise present a barrier to an award of attorney's fees against a State, Congress clearly acted within its power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment in removing that barrier. Under § 5, Congress may pass any legislation that is appropriate to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantees, and a statute awarding attorney's fees in a case in which the plaintiff prevails on a wholly statutory, non-civil-rights claim pendent to a substantial constitutional claim or in one in which both a statutory and a substantial constitutional claim are settled favorably to the plaintiff without adjudication falls within the category of "appropriate" legislation. Pp. 130-133.

594 F.2d 336, affirmed.

Edmund C. Walsh, Asst. Atty. Gen., Hartford, Conn., for petitioner.

Joan E. Pilver, Hartford, Conn., for respondent.

Mr. Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party to recover a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the award of costs.1 The question presented by this petition is whether fees may be assessed against state officials after a case has been settled by the entry of a consent decree, without any determination that the plaintiff's constitutional rights have been violated.

Petitioner is responsible for the administration of Connecticut's Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a federally funded public assistance program.2 Respondent is a working recipient of AFDC benefits. Under state and federal regulations, the amount of her benefits depends, in part, on her net earnings, which are defined as her wages minus certain work-related expenses. In 1975 respondent filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut alleging that Connecticut's AFDC regulations denied her credit for substantial portions of her actual work-related expenses,3 thus reducing the level of her benefits. Her complaint alleged that these regulations violated § 402(a)(7) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(7),4 and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.5 The complaint further alleged that relief was authorized by 42 U.S.C. § 1983 6 and invoked federal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1343.7

A few months after the action was commenced, while discovery was underway, petitioner amended the AFDC regulations to authorize a deduction for all reasonable work-related expenses. After an interval of almost a year and a half, respondent filed an amended complaint alleging that actual expenses in excess of certain standard allowances were still being routinely disallowed. Thereafter, a settlement was negotiated and the District Court entered a consent decree that, among other things, provided for a substantial increase in the standard allowances and gave AFDC recipients the right to prove that their actual work-related expenses were in excess of the standard.8 The parties informally agreed that the question whether respondent was entitled to recover attorney's fees would be submitted to the District Court after the entry of the consent decree.

Following an adversary hearing, the District Court awarded respondent's counsel a fee of $3,012.19. 455 F.Supp. 1344 (1978). The court held that respondent was the "prevailing party" within the meaning of § 1988 because, while not prevailing "in every particular," she had won "substantially all of the relief originally sought in her complaint" in the consent decree. Id., at 1347. The court also rejected petitioner's argument that an award of fees against him was barred by the Eleventh Amendment in the absence of a judicial determination that respondent's constitutional rights had been violated. Relying on the basic policy against deciding constitutional claims unnecessarily, the court held that respondent was entitled to fees under the Act because, in addition to her statutory claim, she had alleged constitutional claims that were sufficiently substantial to support federal jurisdiction under the reasoning of Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, 94 S.Ct. 1372, 39 L.Ed.2d 577.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, 594 F.2d 336 (CA2 1979), holding that Congress intended to authorize an award of fees in this kind of situation and that it had the constitutional power to do so.9 We granted certiorari to consider both the statutory and constitutional questions. 444 U.S. 824, 100 S.Ct. 44, 62 L.Ed.2d 30.

I

Petitioner's first argument is that Congress did not intend to authorize the award of attorney's fees in every type of § 1983 action, but rather limited the courts' authority to award fees to cases in which § 1983 is invoked as a remedy for a constitutional violation or a violation of a federal statute providing for the protection of civil rights or equal rights. In support of this contention, petitioner relies on our holding in Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Organization, 441 U.S. 600, 99 S.Ct. 1905, 60 L.Ed.2d 508, that there is no federal jurisdiction under § 1343 over § 1983 claims outside these categories and that there is therefore no jurisdiction under § 1343 over a § 1983 claim based solely on a violation of the Social Security Act. Characterizing respondent's claim in this case as arising solely out of a Social Security Act violation, petitioner argues that the District Court had no authority under § 1988 to award her attorney's fees.

Even if petitioner's characterization of respondent's claim were correct,10 his argument would have to be rejected. In Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 100 S.Ct. 2502, 65 L.Ed.2d 555, decided this day, we hold that § 1988 applies to all types of § 1983 actions, including actions based solely on Social Security Act violations. As Mr. Justice BRENNAN's opinion for the Court in Thiboutot demonstrates, neither the language of § 1988 nor its legislative history provides any basis for importing the distinctions Chapman made among § 1983 actions for purposes of federal jurisdiction into the award of attorney's fees by a court that possesses jurisdiction over the claim.11

We also find no merit in petitioner's suggestion that respondent was not the "prevailing party" within the meaning of § 1988. The fact that respondent prevailed through a settlement rather than through litigation does not weaken her claim to fees. Nothing in the language of § 1988 conditions the District Court's power to...

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