By Pat Murphy
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide the extent to which defendants in a civil rights case are entitled to attorney fees under Section 1988 after obtaining the dismissal of a frivolous claim that involved interrelated non-frivolous claims.
The court agreed to review a ruling from the 5th Circuit involving a Section 1983 plaintiff who alleged that a town sheriff took illegal steps to dissuade him from becoming a candidate for the sheriff’s office.
A U.S. District Court dismissed the sec. 1983 claims against the town and town officials after the plaintiff conceded that they had no basis in federal law. The court then remanded related defamation claims to state court.
The town sought attorney fees under sec. 1988 for the plaintiff’s filing of a frivolous lawsuit.
The plaintiff contended that a defendant must prevail over the entire case in order to be awarded attorney fees under sec. 1988. He argued that the town could not recover fees for the dismissal of his federal claims when he continued to press his related defamation claims in state court.
The 5th Circuit concluded that “a defendant does not have to prevail over an entire suit in order to recover attorney fees for frivolous sec. 1983 claims.”
However, it held that “a defendant is only entitled to attorneys’ fees for work which can be distinctly traced to a plaintiff’s frivolous claims. Inasmuch as a non-frivolous claim in the same suit can be the basis for the work of a defendant’s attorney, the court must consider the interrelated nature of the frivolous and non-frivolous claims to determine the appropriate fee.”
The court upheld the fee award in this case because the town did not seek fees for the defense of the plaintiff’s state-law claims.