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Decided: July 11, 2014

In Lefemine v. Wideman, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred, and that Appellant was entitled to attorney’s fees he incurred in connection with his civil lawsuit against various Greenwood County Sheriffs’ Office officials.

Appellant and other members of his group, Columbia Christians for Life, staged a demonstration on a public sidewalk in Greenwood County, South Carolina with the purpose of conveying their anti-abortion message. After receiving several complaints about the graphic images displayed, the Sheriff’s Office instructed Appellant to take the signs down, but Appellant refused. The following year, Appellant sent a letter to the Sheriff informing him that the group intended to return to the area and protest in a similar fashion. The letter also stated that the group would pursue legal action if there were any interference with their demonstration. In response, the Sheriff’s Office declared that, faced with the same circumstances, it would respond in the same manner.

Appellant then filed suit alleging First Amendment violations, and seeking a declaratory judgment, a permanent injunction, damages, and attorneys’ fees. Appellant was successful on his First Amendment claim again the officials, but the district court held that Appellant could not recover damages, and refused to award attorneys’ fees. Appellant appealed; the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court; and, Appellant sought and was granted certiorari by the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit, who, in turn, remanded to the district court to award fees unless the court determined by express findings that special circumstances rendered such an award unjust.

Generally, “[p]laintiffs who prevail in suits to vindicate civil rights are entitled to attorney’s fees.” The district court, however, concluded that “special circumstances” existed such that an award of attorney’s fees to Appellant would be unjust. The Fourth Circuit reversed. Relying on the language and purpose of § 1988, the Court emphasized that awarding attorney’s fees to prevailing plaintiffs is particularly important where constitutional rights are to be protected. The Court also noted that the special circumstances exception is a narrow exception.

After summarizing relevant cases, the Court asserted that no precedent supported the district court’s conclusion that qualified immunity constitutes a special circumstance. Rather, the Court stated, “special government immunities that restrict civil rights plaintiffs’ recoveries weigh in favor of-and certainly not against-awarding Section 1988 fees.”

Next, the Court rejected the district court’s conclusion that the absence of a policy or custom of discrimination by the Sheriff’s Office constituted a special circumstance. The district court noted that Appellant failed to show that the Sheriff’s Office had a policy or custom of discrimination, and thus, found that Appellant could not obtain damages from the Sheriff’s Office. Notwithstanding, the Fourth Circuit emphasized that neither it nor the Supreme Court had ever suggested that the inability to bring a viable claim against an entity “somehow blocks otherwise prevailing civil rights plaintiffs from obtaining their attorneys’ fees under Section 1988.”

Finally, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the limited nature of the relief granted to Appellant did not constitute a special circumstance that made a § 1988 fee award unjust. The Court stated that the district court downplayed the relief Appellant received, but that the relief Appellant received was in fact “notably broader than the district court acknowledged.” Accordingly, the Court held that the district court erred in denying Plaintiff attorneys’ fees.

Full Opinion

Abigail Forrister