Stinnie v. Holcomb

Docket Number21-1756
Decision Date07 August 2023
PartiesDAMIAN STINNIE; MELISSA ADAMS; ADRAINNE JOHNSON; WILLIEST BANDY; BRIANNA MORGAN, individually, and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. RICHARD D. HOLCOMB, in his official capacity as the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Defendant-Appellee. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION OF VIRGINIA, ET AL, Amicus Supporting Appellant, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE, Amicus Supporting Rehearing Petition.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)


DAMIAN STINNIE; MELISSA ADAMS; ADRAINNE JOHNSON; WILLIEST BANDY; BRIANNA MORGAN, individually, and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

RICHARD D. HOLCOMB, in his official capacity as the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Defendant-Appellee.

AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION OF VIRGINIA, ET AL, Amicus Supporting Appellant, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE, Amicus Supporting Rehearing Petition.

No. 21-1756

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

August 7, 2023

Argued: January 25, 2023

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, at Charlottesville. Norman K. Moon, Senior District Judge. (3:16-cv-00044-NKM-JCH)



Tennille Jo Checkovich, SMITHFIELD FOODS, INC., Smithfield, Virginia, for Appellants.

Trevor Stephen Cox, HUNTON ANDREWS KURTH LLP, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.


Jonathan T. Blank, Benjamin P. Abel, Charlottesville, Virginia, John J. Woolard, MCGUIREWOODS LLP, Richmond, Virginia; Angela A. Ciolfi, Charlottesville, Virginia, Patrick Levy-Lavelle, LEGAL AID JUSTICE CENTER, Richmond, Virginia; Leslie Kendrick, Charlottesville, Virginia; Michael Stark, Smithfield, Virginia, for Appellants.

Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, Jason S. Miyares, Attorney General, Andrew N. Ferguson, Solicitor General, Donald D. Anderson, Deputy Attorney General, Leslie A.T. Haley, Deputy Attorney General, Chandra D. Lantz, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Julie M. Whitlock, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Janet W. Baugh, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Christian A. Parrish, Assistant Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia; Maya M. Eckstein, David M. Parker, HUNTON ANDREWS KURTH LLP, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.

Theodore A. Howard, WILEY REIN LLP, Washington, D.C., for Amici American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, et al. William R. Maurer, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE, Seattle, Washington, for Amicus Institute for Justice.




Under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), the "prevailing party" in certain civil rights actions is eligible to recover reasonable attorney's fees. Two decades ago, we held that a plaintiff who wins a preliminary injunction but - for whatever reason - does not secure a final judgment may never qualify as a prevailing party. Smyth ex rel. Smyth v. Rivero, 282 F.3d 268 (4th Cir. 2002). In the years since, this categorical rule has become a complete outlier: Every other circuit to consider the issue has held that a preliminary injunction may confer prevailing party status in appropriate circumstances.

We granted rehearing en banc to reassess our bright-line approach, and we now conclude that it is too stringent. Although many preliminary injunctions represent only "a transient victory at the threshold of an action," Sole v. Wyner, 551 U.S. 74, 78 (2007), some provide enduring, merits-based relief that satisfies all the requisites of the prevailing party standard. Because the plaintiffs here "prevailed" in every sense needed to make them eligible for a fee award, we vacate the district court's denial of attorney's fees and remand for further proceedings.



This fee dispute turns on a single question of law - whether a preliminary injunction may ever confer "prevailing party" status under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) - so we review the facts only as they bear on that inquiry. Prior to this litigation, a Virginia statute required the automatic suspension of residents' driver's licenses if they failed to pay certain court


fines and fees. See Va. Code § 46.2-395 (repealed 2020). Then, in 2016, a group of indigent Virginians who lost their licenses when they were unable to pay court debts initiated a putative class action against the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles ("Commissioner"), alleging that the Commonwealth's license-suspension scheme was unconstitutional. The plaintiffs raised several claims under the Fourteenth Amendment: that the statute's requirement of automatic suspension without notice or a hearing violated their procedural due process rights; and that the statute's enforcement against those who were unable, not unwilling, to pay violated both their substantive due process rights and their equal protection rights. As relief, the plaintiffs sought preliminary and permanent injunctions preventing the statute's enforcement and requiring license reinstatement as to the "hundreds of thousands of Virginians" with suspended licenses. J.A. 227.

In December 2018,[1] following extensive briefing and argument, the district court granted the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction. In a comprehensive opinion, the court made detailed findings of fact and conducted a robust assessment of the plaintiffs' procedural due process claim before concluding that it was likely to succeed on the merits.


See Stinnie v. Holcomb, 355 F.Supp.3d 514, 531 (W.D. Va. 2018).[2] And after determining that the plaintiffs satisfied the remaining injunction factors set forth in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7 (2008), the court deemed interim relief appropriate. Stinnie, 355 F.Supp.3d at 532 (concluding that "irreparable harm, the balance of equities, and the public interest . . . weigh in favor of" the plaintiffs). The court then preliminarily enjoined the statute's enforcement as to the named plaintiffs and ordered the Commissioner to "remove any current suspensions of the Plaintiffs' driver's licenses imposed under Va. Code § 46.2-395." J.A. 843.[3] The Commissioner did not appeal the injunction, and the plaintiffs were once again free to drive to their jobs, medical appointments, and personal engagements. See Stinnie, 355 F.Supp.3d at 520-22.

The case was set for a bench trial in August 2019. But soon before trial - and with cross-motions for summary judgment pending - the Virginia General Assembly passed a Budget Amendment suspending the enforcement of the challenged statute for one year. See Stinnie v. Holcomb, 396 F.Supp.3d 653, 658 (W.D. Va. 2019). At the Commissioner's request and over the plaintiffs' strenuous objections, the court then stayed the case pending the next legislative session, during which the Commissioner represented a full repeal was likely. See id. And at this session, the General Assembly voted to eliminate § 46.2-395


from the Virginia Code. See 2020 Va. Acts ch. 965. With the challenged statute repealed - and the plaintiffs no longer in need of court-ordered relief - the court dismissed the action as moot.


The plaintiffs then petitioned for attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b), which provides that the district court, "in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party" in § 1983 actions "a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." The court first requested briefing on whether the plaintiffs were "prevailing parties" eligible for a fee award; if the plaintiffs could clear this hurdle, the parties would then brief "the amount and reasonableness of any fees" to be shifted. J.A. 1017.

In our circuit, however, this initial hurdle amounted to a brick wall. True, the plaintiffs noted, a party "prevails" for purposes of § 1988(b) if "actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff." Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111-12 (1992). And here, they argued, the district court's preliminary injunction did just that: After determining that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits, the court ordered the Commissioner to reinstate their licenses, providing precisely the "actual relief" that the litigants sought by bringing suit. The repeal of the challenged statute may have rendered further relief unnecessary, but that did not "detract from the legal significance" of their victory. J.A. 1042.

But as the Commissioner responded, these arguments were squarely foreclosed by Fourth Circuit precedent: In Smyth ex rel. Smyth v. Rivero, 282 F.3d 268, 277 (4th Cir. 2002),


we held that winning a preliminary injunction is never sufficient to confer "prevailing party" status. Preliminary relief, we reasoned, is "necessarily uncertain," the product of an "incomplete examination of the merits" that "by no means represents a determination that the claim in question will or ought to succeed ultimately." Id. at 27677 &n.8. We thus concluded that preliminary injunctions are, without exception, "not the stuff of which legal victories are made." Id. at 276 (quoting Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Virginia Dep't of Health &Hum. Res., 532 U.S. 598, 605 (2001)).

In a thoughtful report recommending denial of the fee petition, a magistrate judge noted that Smyth "stands alone," and that "a broad consensus among other circuits" holds that a "merits-based preliminary injunction that is not undone or otherwise modified by a later court order may confer prevailing party status." Stinnie v. Holcomb, No. 3:16-cv-00044, 2021 WL 627552, at *9-10 (W.D. Va. Feb. 16, 2021). Moreover, the magistrate judge concluded, it appeared that the plaintiffs here would indeed be prevailing parties under this consensus approach. Id. at *10-11. Nonetheless, in light of Smyth's categorical rule, the magistrate judge felt compelled to recommend denial, and the district court adopted that recommendation. See Stinnie v. Holcomb, No. 3:16-cv-00044, 2021 WL 2292807, at *5 (W.D. Va. June 4, 2021).

On appeal, the plaintiffs did not contest that Smyth foreclosed their claim. Instead, they argued that intervening Supreme Court precedent rendered Smyth untenable. When we decided Smyth, courts in this circuit were permitted to grant...

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