Supreme Court Vacates Fourth Circuit in Lefemine v. Wideman

On November 5, 2012 the Supreme Court decided the case of Lefemine v. Wideman (Docket No. 12-168).  In its first decision of the October 2012 Term, the Court held that the Fourth Circuit erred in refusing to recognize Petitioner’s prevailing plaintiff status.

This case concerns the award of attorney fees in a suit alleging unconstitutional conduct by government officials. Congress enacted the The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Award Act of 1976 (42 U.S.C. Section 1988) with the express intent of allowing awards of attorney fees to prevailing plaintiffs in actions brought under, inter alia, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. Prevailing plaintiffs are those who obtain “enforceable judgments on the merits [or] court-ordered consent decrees [which] create the material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties necessary to permit an award of attorney’s fees.”

Steven Lefemine sometimes conducted abortion protest activities under the name Columbia Christians for Life.  On multiple occasions Mr. Lefemine and members of his organization were threatened with arrest in violation of their First Amendment rights, as they planned to engage in protest activities.

The District Court held that their First Amendment rights were violated.. Sherriff deputies violated Mr. Lefemine’s free exercise of religion, free speech, and free assembly rights, when they threatened members of the organization with arrest for displaying detailed photographs while protesting abortion.  Lefemine was granted permanent injunctive relief and declaratory relief on the merits, but no monetary damages.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that Lefemine was not entitled to attorney fees, even though he had prevailed in District Court by securing a permanent injunction.  The Fourth Circuit failed to recognize Lefemine’s status as a “prevailing party” under 42 U. S. C. Section 1988.  Consequently he could not receive attorney fees.

The Supreme Court held that ruling to be in error, and that Lefemine was entitled to the award of attorney fees as the prevailing party.

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