U.S. Supreme Court allows limited attorney fees in some frivolous cases

The Daily Record Newswire

In cases involving frivolous and non-frivolous claims, a court may grant reasonable fees to the defendant, but only for costs that would not have been incurred but-for the frivolous claims, the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case stemmed from a local election for town police chief. The incumbent candidate employed a host of tactics to dissuade a challenger from entering the race, including threatening to expose embellished stories about the challenger and bribing an accused criminal to claim the challenger used a racial slur.

The challenger won the election, and the incumbent was investigated by the FBI, charged with and convicted of extortion.

The new police chief then sued his predecessor, asserting constitutional claims, including violation of his civil rights under §1983 and violation of his First Amendment rights ''to seek public office,'' to ''be free of extortion'' and ''not to be slandered.''

The complaint also alleged several state tort claims.

A magistrate judge dismissed the federal claims and the previous chief moved for attorney fees under §1988, which allows prevailing parties to recover attorney fees for frivolous claims.

Another magistrate judge awarded him his full attorney fees, holding that the remaining state law claims were so interrelated to the constitutional claims that the new chief's attorney's work on them could not be separated out.

The 5th Circuit concluded that ''a defendant does not have to prevail over an entire suit in order to recover attorney fees for frivolous §1983 claims,'' but also held that ''a defendant is only entitled to attorney's fees for work which can be distinctly traced to a plaintiff's frivolous claims.''

The Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.

The Court vacated and remanded the 5th Circuit, imposing a ''but-for'' standard for awarding attorney fees.

Acknowledging that ''in the real world, litigation is ... complex, involving multiple claims for relief that implicate a mix of legal theories and have different merits,'' Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a unanimous Court, wrote that ''trial courts need not, and indeed should not, become green-eyeshade accountants. ... [T]he trial court must determine whether the fees requested would not have accrued but for the frivolous claim.''

Published: Thu, Jun 9, 2011