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Fourth Circuit decision on attorneys’ fees will help enforce civil rights

September 7, 2023

In a significant decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned a counterproductive prohibition on certain attorneys’ fees in civil rights cases. The court’s August decision will help protect people’s access to the courts when enforcing their civil rights and deter violations of the law. The Public Justice Center is proud to be part of the coalition of organizations that signed onto an amicus brief that advocated for this change. Thank you to Wiley Rein’s Theodore Howard for authoring the brief.

In the case Stinnie v. Holcomb, plaintiffs sued the Virginia Commissioner of Motor Vehicles for the state’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses when people had not paid court fees. The district court granted a preliminary injunction to halt the practice while the case proceeded, holding that the practice likely violated people’s right to due process. The state stopped enforcing the law that had led to the drivers’ license suspensions and the legislature repealed it, mooting the case. The plaintiffs filed for attorneys’ fees, but the district court and a panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied their request because earlier legal precedent said that attorney’s fees could not be awarded unless the plaintiff won a final judgment.

On appeal to the full Fourth Circuit, the amicus brief argued that the denial of attorneys’ fees after the preliminary injunction caused the state to reverse course contradicts decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts, as well as Congress’ intent when it passed the Civil Rights Attorneys’ Fees Awards Act of 1976. That law was meant to make it easier for individuals to enforce their civil rights through litigation by allowing them to seek attorneys’ fees when they prevail, as the prospect of fees makes it more likely that private attorneys will take these cases. The possibility of having to pay attorneys’ fees can also serve as a deterrent against government agencies prolonging litigation if they are unlikely to succeed and induce them to correct civil rights violations sooner rather than later.

In its ruling, the full Fourth Circuit reversed the earlier decision and set new precedent allowing attorneys’ fees to be awarded when a preliminary injunction achieves the goals of a civil rights case. The opinion describes how prior precedent had given government defendants incentive to “game the system”:

Faced with a suit challenging a potentially or even very probably unlawful practice, a defendant may freely litigate the case through the preliminary injunction phase, hoping for the best or, perhaps, to outlast an indigent plaintiff. And when the court confirms the likely merit of the plaintiff’s claim, the government will have ample time to cease the challenged conduct, moot the case, and avoid paying fees. That leaves the plaintiff, who likely devoted considerable resources to obtaining the preliminary injunction, holding the bag. The predictable outcome of this gamesmanship is fewer attorneys willing to represent civil rights plaintiffs in even clearly meritorious actions – particularly those whose urgent situations call for interim relief.

The decision in Stinnie v. Holcomb is a vitally important development in the enforcement of civil rights, and we look forward to seeing the impact it has on future cases.

The Public Justice Center joined several organizations in signing onto the brief in Stinnie v. Holcomb, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, the Center for Civil Justice, Equal Justice Under the Law, Florida Legal Services, Inc., the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center, the Mississippi Center for Justice, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, The Rutherford Institute, Tzedek DC, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.