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Court Limits Payment of Legal Fees in Rights Cases

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WASHINGTON--Civil-rights plaintiffs who win only small damage amounts will find it harder to make defendants pay the plaintiffs' legal fees, as a result of a ruling last month by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The High Court on Dec. 14 ruled unanimously that plaintiffs winning even minor victories or small monetary judgments should be considered "prevailing parties'' under the Civil Rights Attorneys Fee Awards Act of 1976. That law, which requires defendants in some civil-rights cases to pay the legal costs of successful plaintiffs, has encouraged many suits by those who otherwise could not afford lawyers.

The Court ruled on a 5-to-4 vote, however, that plaintiffs who win only nominal damages--in the case at hand, $1--are generally not entitled to attorney's-fee awards.

"A plaintiff who seeks compensatory damages but receives no more than nominal damages'' usually should receive no attorney's fees, wrote Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in the majority opinion in Farrar v. Hobby (Case No. 91-990).

"In a civil-rights suit for damages,'' Justice Thomas continued, "the awarding of nominal damages also highlights the plaintiff's failure to prove actual, compensable injury.''

Analysts said the implications of the ruling were less clear for civil-rights suits that seek injunctive relief but not monetary damages. These include desegregation cases and other suits seeking institutional changes, which frequently involve school districts.

"It is a good decision for us, but it is difficult to know when to apply the case and when not to,'' said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

"I would think that plaintiffs will be more careful in their requests for damages,'' Ms. Gregory added.

A Bundle and a Pittance

The ruling came in a Texas case in which the operators of a school for delinquent and disturbed teenagers sued state officials, who had closed the facility in 1973 following allegations of child abuse.

Joseph D. Farrar, the owner of the school, who has since died, sought $17 million in damages from six defendants. But he was awarded only $1 from Lieut. Gov. William P. Hobby Jr.

A federal judge ordered Mr. Hobby to pay more than $316,000 in attorney's fees and expenses to the Farrar estate. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit subsequently threw out the fee award, however, saying that Mr. Farrar was not a prevailing party under the federal law.

Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a concurrence, said that Mr. Farrar's estate did not deserve an award of attorney's fees because the suit achieved only a minimal financial victory and did not accomplish any other public goal.

"He asked for a bundle and got a pittance,'' she wrote. "That is simply not the type of victory that merits an award of attorney's fees.''

Associate Justice Byron R. White, joined in a separate opinion by Justices Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and David H. Souter, wrote that he agreed that plaintiffs who win only minor damage amounts should still be considered prevailing parties. But the majority should not have "decreed'' that Mr. Farrar's estate was entitled to no attorney's-fee award at all, Justice White contended.

"Civil-rights cases are often complex, and we therefore have committed the task of calculating attorney's fees to the trial court's discretion for good reason,'' he wrote.

Hate-Crimes Law

Also last month, the Court agreed to decide the constitutionality of a Wisconsin law that increases the sentences for defendants convicted of crimes such as assault or vandalism if they were motivated by bias against the victim's race, religion, or other factors.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the sentence-enhancement law has the effect of "punishing offensive thought'' and "chilling free speech'' in violation of the First Amendment.

In a related case, the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down a St. Paul ordinance that prohibited the display of any symbol that "arouses anger, alarm, or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender.''

A number of states have taken an approach similar to Wisconsin's. Backers of such laws argue that the measures should be upheld because they punish conduct rather than mere expression.

The issue in Wisconsin v. Mitchell (No. 92-515) is of interest to public schools and colleges because of its potential ramifications for student-speech and -conduct codes and their resulting disciplinary proceedings.

In separate action, the Court declined once again to intervene in an issue stemming out of the Kansas City, Mo., desegregation case.

In Clark v. Jenkins (No. 92-539), the High Court let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that a group of taxpayers failed to file a timely appeal of a court-mandated property-tax increase to fund the district's desegregation efforts.

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