Numerous federal statutes allow courts to award attorney's fees and costs to the "prevailing party." The question presented here is whether this term includes a party that has failed to secure a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree, but has nonetheless achieved the desired result because the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct. We hold that it does not.
Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc., which operates care homes that provide assisted living to their residents, failed an inspection by the West Virginia Office of the State Fire Marshal because some of the residents were incapable of "self-preservation" as defined under state law. See W. Va. Code §§ 16-5H-1, 16-5H-2 (1998) (requiring that all residents of residential board and care homes be capable of "self-preservation," or capable of moving themselves "from situations involving imminent danger, such as fire"); W. Va. Code of State Rules, tit. 87, ser. 1, § 14.07(1) (1995) (same). On October 28, 1997, after receiving cease-and-desist orders requiring the closure of its residential care facilities within 30 days, Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc., on behalf of itself and other similarly situated homes and residents (hereinafter petitioners), brought suit in the United States
Respondents agreed to stay enforcement of the cease-anddesist orders pending resolution of the case and the parties began discovery. In 1998, the West Virginia Legislature enacted two bills eliminating the "self-preservation" requirement, see S. 627, I 1998 W. Va. Acts 983-986 (amending regulations); H. R. 4200, II 1998 W. Va. Acts 1198-1199 (amending statute), and respondents moved to dismiss the case as moot. The District Court granted the motion, finding that the 1998 legislation had eliminated the allegedly offensive provisions and that there was no indication that the West Virginia Legislature would repeal the amendments.
Petitioners requested attorney's fees as the "prevailing party" under the FHAA, 42 U. S. C. § 3613(c)(2) ("[T]he court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee and costs"), and ADA, 42 U. S. C. § 12205 ("[T]he court . . . , in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs"). Petitioners argued that they were entitled to attorney's fees under the "catalyst theory," which posits that a plaintiff is a "prevailing party" if it achieves the desired result because the lawsuit brought about a voluntary change in the defendant's conduct. Although
To resolve the disagreement amongst the Courts of Appeals, we granted certiorari, 530 U.S. 1304 (2000), and now affirm.
In the United States, parties are ordinarily required to bear their own attorney's fees—the prevailing party is not entitled to collect from the loser. See Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 247 (1975). Under this "American Rule," we follow "a general practice of not awarding fees to a prevailing party absent explicit statutory authority." Key Tronic Corp. v. United States, 511 U.S. 809, 819 (1994). Congress, however, has authorized the award of attorney's fees to the "prevailing party" in numerous statutes in addition to those at issue here, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 259, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e— 5(k), the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1975, 89 Stat. 402, 42 U. S. C. § 1973l (e), and the Civil Rights Attorney's
In designating those parties eligible for an award of litigation costs, Congress employed the term "prevailing party," a legal term of art. Black's Law Dictionary 1145 (7th ed. 1999) defines "prevailing party" as "[a] party in whose favor a judgment is rendered, regardless of the amount of damages awarded <in certain cases, the court will award attorney's fees to the prevailing party>. — Also termed successful party. " This view that a "prevailing party" is one who has been awarded some relief by the court can be distilled from our prior cases.
In Hanrahan v. Hampton, 446 U.S. 754, 758 (1980) (per curiam), we reviewed the legislative history of § 1988 and found that "Congress intended to permit the interim award of counsel fees only when a party has prevailed on the merits of at least some of his claims." Our "[r]espect for ordinary language requires that a plaintiff receive at least some relief on the merits of his claim before he can be said to prevail."
In addition to judgments on the merits, we have held that settlement agreements enforced through a consent decree may serve as the basis for an award of attorney's fees. See Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122 (1980). Although a consent decree does not always include an admission of liability by the defendant, see, e. g., id., at 126, n. 8, it nonetheless is a court-ordered "chang[e] [in] the legal relationship between [the plaintiff] and the defendant." Texas State Teachers Assn. v. Garland Independent School Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792 (1989) (citing Hewitt, supra, at 760-761, and Rhodes v. Stewart, 488 U.S. 1, 3-4 (1988) (per curiam) ).
The dissenters chide us for upsetting "long-prevailing Circuit precedent." Post, at 622 (opinion of Ginsburg, J.) (emphasis added). But, as Justice Scalia points out in his concurrence, several Courts of Appeals have relied upon dicta in our prior cases in approving the "catalyst theory." See post, at 621-622; see also supra, at 603, n. 5. Now that the issue is squarely presented, it behooves us to reconcile the plain language of the statutes with our prior holdings. We have only awarded attorney's fees where the plaintiff has received a judgment on the merits, see, e. g., Farrar, supra, at 112, or obtained a court-ordered consent decree, Maher, supra, at 129-130—we have not awarded attorney's fees where the plaintiff has secured the reversal of a directed
The House Report to § 1988 states that "[t]he phrase `prevailing party' is not intended to be limited to the victor only after entry of a final judgment following a full trial on the merits," H. R. Rep. No. 94-1558, p. 7 (1976), while the Senate Report explains that "parties may be considered to have prevailed when they vindicate rights through a consent judgment or without formally obtaining relief," S. Rep. No. 94— 1011, p. 5 (1976). Petitioners argue that these Reports and their reference to a 1970 decision from the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Parham v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 433 F.2d 421 (1970), indicate Congress' intent to adopt the "catalyst theory."
Petitioners finally assert that the "catalyst theory" is necessary to prevent defendants from unilaterally mooting an action before judgment in an effort to avoid an award of attorney's fees. They also claim that the rejection of the "catalyst theory" will deter plaintiffs with meritorious but expensive cases from bringing suit. We are skeptical of these assertions, which are entirely speculative and unsupported by any empirical evidence (e. g., whether the number of suits brought in the Fourth Circuit has declined, in relation to other Circuits, since the decision in S-1 and S-2 ).
Petitioners discount the disincentive that the "catalyst theory" may have upon a defendant's decision to voluntarily change its conduct, conduct that may not be illegal. "The defendants' potential liability for fees in this kind of litigation can be as significant as, and sometimes even more significant than, their potential liability on the merits," Evans v. Jeff D., 475 U.S. 717, 734 (1986), and the possibility of being assessed attorney's fees may well deter a defendant from altering its conduct.
And petitioners' fear of mischievous defendants only materializes in claims for equitable relief, for so long as the
We have also stated that "[a] request for attorney's fees should not result in a second major litigation," Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983), and have accordingly avoided an interpretation of the fee-shifting statutes that would have "spawn[ed] a second litigation of significant dimension," Garland, supra, at 791. Among other things, a "catalyst theory" hearing would require analysis of the defendant's subjective motivations in changing its conduct, an analysis that "will likely depend on a highly factbound inquiry and may turn on reasonable inferences from the nature and timing of the defendant's change in conduct."
Given the clear meaning of "prevailing party" in the feeshifting statutes, we need not determine which way these various policy arguments cut. In Alyeska, 421 U. S., at 260, we said that Congress had not "extended any roving authority to the Judiciary to allow counsel fees as costs or otherwise whenever the courts might deem them warranted." To disregard the clear legislative language and the holdings of our prior cases on the basis of such policy arguments would be a similar assumption of a "roving authority." For the reasons stated above, we hold that the "catalyst theory" is not a permissible basis for the award of attorney's fees under the FHAA, 42 U. S. C. § 3613(c)(2), and ADA, 42 U. S. C. § 12205.
I join the opinion of the Court in its entirety, and write to respond at greater length to the contentions of the dissent.
"Prevailing party" is not some newfangled legal term invented for use in late-20th-century fee-shifting statutes.
The term has been found within the United States Statutes at Large since at least the Bankruptcy Act of 1867, which provided that "[t]he party prevailing in the suit shall be entitled to costs against the adverse party." Act of Mar. 2, 1867, ch. 176, § 24, 14 Stat. 528. See also Act of Mar. 3, 1887, ch. 359, § 15, 24 Stat. 508 ("If the Government of the United States shall put in issue the right of the plaintiff to recover the court may, in its discretion, allow costs to the prevailing party from the time of joining such issue"). A computer search shows that the term "prevailing party" appears at least 70 times in the current United States Code; it is no stranger to the law.
At the time 42 U. S. C. § 1988 was enacted, I know of no case, state or federal, in which—either under a statutory invocation of "prevailing party" or under the common-law rule—the "catalyst theory" was enunciated as the basis for awarding costs. Indeed, the dissent cites only one case in which (although the "catalyst theory" was not expressed)
That a judicial finding of liability was an understood requirement of "prevailing" is confirmed by many statutes that use the phrase in a context that presumes the existence of a judicial ruling. See, e. g., 5 U. S. C. § 1221(g)(2) ("[i]f an employee . . . is the prevailing party . . . and the decision is based on a finding of a prohibited personnel practice"); § 1221(g)(3) (providing for an award of attorney's fees to the "prevailing party," "regardless of the basis of the decision"); § 7701(b)(2)(A) (allowing the prevailing party to obtain an interlocutory award of the "relief provided in the decision"); 8 U. S. C. § 1324b(h) (permitting the administrative law judge to award an attorney's fee to the prevailing party "if the losing party's argument is without reasonable foundation in law and fact"); 18 U. S. C. § 1864(e) (1994 ed., Supp. V) (allowing the district court to award the prevailing party its attorney's fee "in addition to monetary damages").
The dissent points out, post, at 629, that the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 limits attorney's fees to an amount "proportionately related to the court ordered relief for the violation." This shows that sometimes Congress does explicitly "tightly bind fees to judgments," ibid., inviting (the dissent believes) the conclusion that "prevailing party" does not fasten fees to judgments. That conclusion does not follow from the premise. What this statutory provision demonstrates, at most, is that use of the phrase "prevailing party" is not the only way to impose a requirement of courtordered relief. That is assuredly true. But it would be no
It is undoubtedly true, as the dissent points out by quoting a nonlegal dictionary, see post, at 633-634, that the word "prevailing" can have other meanings in other contexts: "prevailing winds" are the winds that predominate, and the "prevailing party" in an election is the party that wins the election. But when "prevailing party" is used by courts or legislatures in the context of a lawsuit, it is a term of art. It has traditionally—and to my knowledge, prior to enactment of the first of the statutes at issue here, invariably — meant the party that wins the suit or obtains a finding (or an admission) of liability. Not the party that ultimately gets his way because his adversary dies before the suit comes to judgment; not the party that gets his way because circumstances so change that a victory on the legal point for the other side turns out to be a practical victory for him; and not the party that gets his way because the other side ceases (for whatever reason) its offensive conduct. If a nuisance suit is mooted because the defendant asphalt plant has gone bankrupt and ceased operations, one would not normally call the plaintiff the prevailing party. And it would make no difference, as far as the propriety of that characterization is concerned, if the plant did not go bankrupt but moved to a new location to avoid the expense of litigation. In one sense the plaintiff would have "prevailed"; but he would not be the prevailing party in the lawsuit. Words that have acquired a specialized meaning in the legal context must be accorded their legal meaning.
The cases cited by the dissent in which we have "not treated Black's Law Dictionary as preclusively definitive," post, at 628-629, are in apposite. In both Pioneer Investment Services Co. v. Brunswick Associates Ltd. Partnership, 507 U.S. 380 (1993), and United States v. Rodgers, 466 U.S. 475 (1984), we rejected Black's definition because it conflicted with our precedent. See Pioneer, supra, at 395-396, n. 14; Rodgers, supra, at 480. We did not, as the dissent would do here, simply reject a relevant definition of a word tailored to judicial settings in favor of a more general definition from another dictionary.
The dissent distorts the term "prevailing party" beyond its normal meaning for policy reasons, but even those seem to me misguided. They rest upon the presumption that the catalyst theory applies when "the suit's merit led the defendant to abandon the fray, to switch rather than fight on, to accord plaintiff sooner rather than later the principal redress sought in the complaint," post, at 622 (emphasis added). As the dissent would have it, by giving the term its normal meaning the Court today approves the practice of denying attorney's fees to a plaintiff with a proven claim of discrimination, simply because the very merit of his claim led the defendant to capitulate before judgment. That is not the case. To the contrary, the Court approves the result in Parham v. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co., 433 F.2d 421 (CA8 1970), where attorney's fees were awarded "after [a] finding that the defendant had acted unlawfully," ante, at 607—
It is true that monetary settlements and consent decrees can be extorted as well, and we have approved the award of attorney's fees in cases resolved through such mechanisms. See ante, at 604 (citing cases). Our decision that the statute makes plaintiff a "prevailing party" under such circumstances was based entirely on language in a House Report, see Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129 (1980), and if this issue were to arise for the first time today, I doubt whether I would agree with that result. See Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 760 (1987) (Scalia, J.) (opining that "[r]espect for ordinary language requires that a plaintiff receive at least some relief on the merits of his claim before he can be said to prevail" (emphasis added)). But in the case of courtapproved settlements and consent decrees, even if there has been no judicial determination of the merits, the outcome is at least the product of, and bears the sanction of, judicial action in the lawsuit. There is at least some basis for saying that the party favored by the settlement or decree prevailed in the suit. Extending the holding of Maher to a case in which no judicial action whatever has been taken stretches the term "prevailing party" (and the potential injustice that Maher produces) beyond what the normal meaning
The dissent points out that petitioners' object in bringing their suit was not to obtain "a judge's approbation," but to "stop enforcement of a [West Virginia] rule," post, at 634; see also Hewitt, supra, at 761. True enough. But not even the dissent claims that if a petitioner accumulated attorney's fees in preparing a threatened complaint, but never filed it prior to the defendant's voluntary cessation of its offending behavior, the wannabe-but-never-was plaintiff could recover fees; that would be countertextual, since the fee-shifting statutes require that there be an "action" or "proceeding," see 42 U. S. C. §§ 3613(d), 1988(b) (1994 ed., Supp. V)—which in legal parlance (though not in more general usage) means a lawsuit. See post, at 643 (concluding that a party should be deemed prevailing as a result of a "postcomplaint payment or change in conduct" (emphasis added)). Does that not leave achievement of the broad congressional purpose identified by the dissent just as unsatisfactorily incomplete as the failure to award fees when there is no decree? Just as the dissent rhetorically asks why (never mind the language of the statute) Congress would want to award fees when there is a judgment, but deny fees when the defendant capitulates on the eve of judgment; so also it is fair for us to ask why Congress would want to award fees when suit has been filed, but deny fees when the about-to-be defendant capitulates under the threat of filing. Surely, it cannot be because determination of whether suit was actually contemplated and threatened is too difficult. All the proof takes is a threatening letter and a batch of timesheets. Surely that obstacle would not deter the Congress that (according to the dissent) was willing to let district judges pursue that much more evasive will-o'-the-wisp called "catalyst." (Is this not why we have district courts?, asks the dissent, post, at 639— 640.) My point is not that it would take no more twisting
The dissent's ultimate worry is that today's opinion will "impede access to court for the less well-heeled," post, at 623. But, of course, the catalyst theory also harms the "less wellheeled," putting pressure on them to avoid the risk of massive fees by abandoning a solidly defensible case early in litigation. Since the fee-shifting statutes at issue here allow defendants as well as plaintiffs to receive a fee award, we know that Congress did not intend to maximize the quantity of "the enforcement of federal law by private attorneys general," ibid. Rather, Congress desired an appropriate level of enforcement—which is more likely to be produced by limiting fee awards to plaintiffs who prevail "on the merits," or at least to those who achieve an enforceable "alteration of the legal relationship of the parties," than by permitting the open-ended inquiry approved by the dissent.
The dissent points out that the catalyst theory has been accepted by "the clear majority of Federal Circuits," ibid. But our disagreeing with a "clear majority" of the Circuits is not at all a rare phenomenon. Indeed, our opinions sometimes contradict the unanimous and longstanding interpretation of lower federal courts. See, e. g., McNally v. United States, 483 U.S. 350, 365 (1987) (Stevens, J., dissenting) (the Court's decision contradicted "[e]very court to consider" the question).
The dissent's insistence that we defer to the "clear majority" of Circuit opinion is particularly peculiar in the present case, since that majority has been nurtured and preserved by our own misleading dicta (to which I, unfortunately, contributed). Most of the Court of Appeals cases cited by the dissent, post, at 627, and n. 5, as reaffirming the catalyst theory after our decision in Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992), relied on our earlier opinion in Hewitt. See Marbley v. Bane, 57 F.3d 224, 234 (CA2 1995) (relying on Hewitt to support catalyst theory); Payne v. Board of Ed., 88 F.3d 392, 397 (CA6 1996) (same); Baumgartner v. Harrisburg Housing Auth., 21 F.3d 541, 548 (CA3 1994) (explicitly rejecting Farrar infavor of Hewitt ); Zinn v. Shalala, 35 F.3d 273, 274-276 (CA7 1994) (same); Beard v.Teska, 31 F.3d 942, 950-952 (CA10 1994) (same); Morris v. West Palm Beach, 194 F.3d 1203, 1207 (CA11 1999) (same). Deferring to our colleagues' own error is bad enough; but enshrining the error that we ourselves have improvidently suggested and blaming it on the near-unanimous judgment of our colleagues would surely be unworthy.
* * *
The Court today concludes that a party cannot be deemed to have prevailed, for purposes of fee-shifting statutes such as 42 U. S. C. §§ 1988, 3613(c)(2) (1994 ed. and Supp. V), unless there has been an enforceable "alteration of the legal relationship of the parties." That is the normal meaning of "prevailing party" in litigation, and there is no proper basis for departing from that normal meaning. Congress is free, of course, to revise these provisions—but it is my guess that if it does so it will not create the sort of inequity that the catalyst theory invites, but will require the court to determine that there was at least a substantial likelihood that the party requesting fees would have prevailed.
Justice Ginsburg, with whom Justice Stevens, Justice Souter, and Justice Breyer join, dissenting.
The Court today holds that a plaintiff whose suit prompts the precise relief she seeks does not "prevail," and hence cannot obtain an award of attorney's fees, unless she also secures a court entry memorializing her victory. The entry need not be a judgment on the merits. Nor need there be any finding of wrongdoing. A court-approved settlement will do.
The Court's insistence that there be a document filed in court—a litigated judgment or court-endorsed settlement— upsets long-prevailing Circuit precedent applicable to scores of federal fee-shifting statutes. The decision allows a defendant to escape a statutory obligation to pay a plaintiff's counsel fees, even though the suit's merit led the defendant to abandon the fray, to switch rather than fight on, to accord plaintiff sooner rather than later the principal redress sought in the complaint. Concomitantly, the Court's constricted
In my view, the "catalyst rule," as applied by the clear majority of Federal Circuits, is a key component of the feeshifting statutes Congress adopted to advance enforcement of civil rights. Nothing in history, precedent, or plain English warrants the anemic construction of the term "prevailing party" the Court today imposes.
Petitioner Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. (Buckhannon), operates residential care homes for elderly persons who need assisted living, but not nursing services. Among Buckhannon's residents in October 1996 was 102-year-old Dorsey Pierce. Pierce had resided at Buckhannon for some four years. Her daughter lived nearby, and the care provided at Buckhannon met Pierce's needs. Until 1998, West Virginia had a "self-preservation" rule prohibiting homes like Buckhannon from accommodating persons unable to exit the premises without assistance in the event of a fire. Pierce and two other Buckhannon residents could not get to a fire exit without aid. Informed of these residents' limitations, West Virginia officials proceeded against Buckhannon for noncompliance with the self-preservation rule. On October 18, 1996, three orders issued, each commanding Buckhannon to "cease operating . . . and to effect relocation of [its] existing population within thirty (30) days." App. 46-53.
Ten days later, Buckhannon and Pierce, together with an organization of residential homes and another Buckhannon resident (hereinafter plaintiffs), commenced litigation in Federal District Court to overturn the cease-and-desist orders and the self-preservation rule on which they rested. They sued the State, state agencies, and 18 officials (hereinafter defendants) alleging that the rule discriminated
On November 1, 1996, at a hearing on plaintiffs' request for a temporary restraining order, defendants agreed to the entry of an interim order allowing Buckhannon to remain open without changing the individual plaintiffs' housing and care. Discovery followed. On January 2, 1998, facing the state defendants' sovereign immunity pleas, plaintiffs stipulated to dismissal of their demands for damages. In February 1998, in response to defendants' motion to dispose of the remainder of the case summarily, the District Court determined that plaintiffs had presented triable claims under the FHAA and ADA.
Less than a month after the District Court found that plaintiffs were entitled to a trial, the West Virginia Legislature repealed the self-preservation rule. Plaintiffs still allege, and seek to prove, that their suit triggered the statutory repeal. After the rule's demise, defendants moved to dismiss the case as moot, and plaintiffs sought attorney's fees as "prevailing parties" under the FHAA, 42 U. S. C. § 3613(c)(2), and the ADA, 42 U. S. C. § 12205.
Prior to 1994, every Federal Court of Appeals (except the Federal Circuit, which had not addressed the issue) concluded that plaintiffs in situations like Buckhannon's and
In 1994, the Fourth Circuit en banc, dividing 6-to-5, broke ranks with its sister courts. The court declared that, in light of Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992), a plaintiff could
After the Fourth Circuit's en banc ruling, nine Courts of Appeals reaffirmed their own consistently held interpretation of the term "prevail."
The array of federal-court decisions applying the catalyst rule suggested three conditions necessary to a party's qualification as "prevailing" short of a favorable final judgment or consent decree. A plaintiff first had to show that the defendant provided "some of the benefit sought" by the lawsuit. Wheeler v. Towanda Area School Dist. , 950 F.2d 128, 131 (CA3 1991). Under most Circuits' precedents, a plaintiff had to demonstrate as well that the suit stated a genuine claim, i. e., one that was at least "colorable," not "frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless." Grano, 783 F. 2d, at 1110 (internal
Developed over decades and in legions of federal-court decisions, the catalyst rule and these implementing standards deserve this Court's respect and approbation.
The Court today detects a "clear meaning" of the term prevailing party, ante, at 610, that has heretofore eluded the large majority of courts construing those words. "Prevailing party," today's opinion announces, means "one who has been awarded some relief by the court," ante, at 603. The Court derives this "clear meaning" principally from Black's Law Dictionary, which defines a "prevailing party," in critical part, as one "in whose favor a judgment is rendered," ibid. (quoting Black's Law Dictionary 1145 (7th ed. 1999)).
One can entirely agree with Black's Law Dictionary that a party "in whose favor a judgment is rendered" prevails, and at the same time resist, as most Courts of Appeals have, any implication that only such a party may prevail. In prior cases, we have not treated Black's Law Dictionary as preclusively
The spare "prevailing party" language of the fee-shifting provision applicable in Maher, and the similar wording of the fee-shifting provisions now before the Court, contrast with prescriptions that so tightly bind fees to judgments as to exclude the application of a catalyst concept. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, for example, directs that fee awards to prisoners under § 1988 be "proportionately related to the court ordered relief for the violation." 110 Stat. 1321-72, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 1997e(d)(1)(B)(i) (1994 ed., Supp. V) (emphasis added). That statute, by its express terms, forecloses an award to a prisoner on a catalyst theory. But the FHAA and ADA fee-shifting prescriptions, modeled
It is altogether true, as the concurring opinion points out, ante, at 610-611, that litigation costs other than attorney's fees traditionally have been allowed to the "prevailing party," and that a judgment winner ordinarily fits that description. It is not true, however, that precedent on costs calls for the judgment requirement the Court ironly adopts today for attorney's fees. Indeed, the first decision cited in the concurring opinion, Mansfield, C. & L. M. R. Co. v. Swan, 111 U.S. 379 (1884), see ante, at 611, tugs against the restrictive rule today's decision installs.
In Mansfield, plaintiffs commenced a contract action in state court. Over plaintiffs' objections, defendants successfully removed the suit to federal court. Plaintiffs prevailed on the merits there, and defendants obtained review here. See 111 U. S., at 380-381. This Court determined, on its own motion, that federal subject-matter jurisdiction was absent from the start. Based on that determination, the Court reversed the lower court's judgment for plaintiffs. Worse than entering and leaving this Courthouse equally "emptyhanded," ante, at 614 (concurring opinion), the plaintiffs in Mansfield were stripped of the judgment they had won, including the "judicial finding . . . of the merits" in their favor, ante, at 613 (concurring opinion). The Mansfield plaintiffs did, however, achieve this small consolation: The Court awarded them costs here as well as below. Recognizing that defendants had "prevail[ed]" in a "formal and nominal sense," the Mansfield Court nonetheless concluded that "[i]n a true and proper sense" defendants were "the losing and not the prevailing party." 111 U. S., at 388.
While Mansfield casts doubt on the present majority's "formal and nominal" approach, that decision does not consider
In short, there is substantial support, both old and new, federal and state, for a costs award, "in [the court's] discretion," supra, at 625, n. 1, to the plaintiff whose suit prompts the defendant to provide the relief plaintiff seeks.
Recognizing that no practice set in stone, statute, rule, or precedent, see infra, at 643, dictates the proper construction of modern civil rights fee-shifting prescriptions, I would "assume . . . that Congress intends the words in its enactments to carry `their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning.' " Pioneer, 507 U. S., at 388 (defining "excusable neglect") (quoting Perrin v. United States, 444 U.S. 37, 42 (1979) (defining "bribery")); see also, e. g., Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471, 491 (1999) (defining "substantially" in light of ordinary usage); Rutledge v. United States, 517 U.S. 292, 299-300, n. 10 (1996) (similarly defining "in concert"). In everyday use, "prevail" means "gain victory by virtue of strength or superiority: win mastery: triumph." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1797 (1976). There are undoubtedly situations in which an individual's goal is to obtain approval of a judge, and in those situations, one cannot "prevail" short of a judge's formal declaration. In a piano competition or a figure skating contest, for example, the person who prevails is the person declared winner by the judges. However, where the ultimate goal is not an arbiter's approval, but a favorable alteration of actual circumstances, a formal declaration is not essential. Western democracies, for instance, "prevailed" in the Cold War even though the Soviet Union never formally surrendered. Among television viewers, John F. Kennedy "prevailed" in the first debate with Richard M. Nixon during the 1960 Presidential contest, even though moderator Howard K. Smith
A lawsuit's ultimate purpose is to achieve actual relief from an opponent. Favorable judgment may be instrumental in gaining that relief. Generally, however, "the judicial decree is not the end but the means. At the end of the rainbow lies not a judgment, but some action (or cessation of action) by the defendant . . . ." Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 761 (1987). On this common understanding, if a party reaches the "sought-after destination," then the party "prevails" regardless of the "route taken." Hennigan v. Ouachita Parish School Bd., 749 F.2d 1148, 1153 (CA5 1985).
Under a fair reading of the FHAA and ADA provisions in point, I would hold that a party "prevails" in "a true and proper sense," Mansfield, 111 U. S., at 388, when she achieves, by instituting litigation, the practical relief sought in her complaint. The Court misreads Congress, as I see it, by insisting that, invariably, relief must be displayed in a judgment, and correspondingly that a defendant's voluntary action never suffices. In this case, Buckhannon's purpose in suing West Virginia officials was not narrowly to obtain a judge's approbation. The plaintiffs' objective was to stop enforcement of a rule requiring Buckhannon to evict residents like centenarian Dorsey Pierce as the price of remaining in business. If Buckhannon achieved that objective on account of the strength of its case, see supra, at 628—if it succeeded in keeping its doors open while housing and caring for Ms. Pierce and others similarly situated—then Buckhannon is properly judged a party who prevailed.
As the Courts of Appeals have long recognized, the catalyst rule suitably advances Congress' endeavor to place private actions, in civil rights and other legislatively defined areas, securely within the federal law enforcement arsenal.
Once the 1964 Act came into force, courts commenced to award fees regularly under the statutory authorizations, and sometimes without such authorization. See Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 262, 270-271, n. 46 (1975). In Alyeska, this Court reaffirmed the "American Rule" that a court generally may not award attorney's fees without a legislative instruction to do so. See id., at 269. To provide the authorization Alyeska required for fee awards under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as under Reconstruction Era civil rights legislation, 42 U. S. C. §§ 1981-1983, 1985, 1986 (1994 ed. and Supp. V), and certain other enactments, Congress passed the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U. S. C. § 1988 (1994 ed. and Supp. V).
As explained in the Reports supporting § 1988, civil rights statutes vindicate public policies "of the highest priority," S. Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 3 (1976) (quoting Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402 (1968) (per curiam) ), yet "depend heavily upon private enforcement," S. Rep. No. 94-1011, at 2. Persons who bring meritorious civil rights claims, in this light, serve as "private attorneys
Under the catalyst rule that held sway until today, plaintiffs who obtained the relief they sought through suit on genuine claims ordinarily qualified as "prevailing parties," so that courts had discretion to award them their costs and fees. Persons with limited resources were not impelled to "wage total law" in order to assure that their counsel fees would be paid. They could accept relief, in money or of another kind, voluntarily proffered by a defendant who sought to avoid a recorded decree. And they could rely on a judge then to determine, in her equitable discretion, whether counsel fees were warranted and, if so, in what amount.
The Court identifies several "policy arguments" that might warrant rejection of the catalyst rule. See ante, at 608-610. A defendant might refrain from altering its conduct, fearing liability for fees as the price of voluntary action. See ante, at 608. Moreover, rejection of the catalyst rule has limited impact: Desisting from the challenged conduct will not render a case moot where damages are sought, and even when the plaintiff seeks only equitable relief, a defendant's voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not render the case moot "unless it is `absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.' " Ante, at 609 (quoting Friends of Earth, Inc., 528
The Court declines to look beneath the surface of these arguments, placing its reliance, instead, on a meaning of "prevailing party" that other jurists would scarcely recognize as plain. See ante, at 603. Had the Court inspected the "policy arguments" listed in its opinion, I doubt it would have found them impressive.
In opposition to the argument that defendants will resist change in order to stave off an award of fees, one could urge that the catalyst rule may lead defendants promptly to comply with the law's requirements: the longer the litigation, the larger the fees. Indeed, one who knows noncompliance will be expensive might be encouraged to conform his conduct to the legal requirements before litigation is threatened. Cf. Hylton, Fee Shifting and Incentives to Comply with the Law, 46 Vand. L. Rev. 1069, 1121 (1993) ("fee shifting in favor of prevailing plaintiffs enhances both incentives to comply with legal rules and incentives to settle disputes"). No doubt, a mootness dismissal is unlikely when recurrence of the controversy is under the defendant's control. But, as earlier observed, see supra, at 636, why should this Court's feeshifting rulings drive a plaintiff prepared to accept adequate relief, though out-of-court and unrecorded, to litigate on and on? And if the catalyst rule leads defendants to negotiate not only settlement terms but also allied counsel fees, is that not a consummation to applaud, not deplore?
As to the burden on the court, is it not the norm for the judge to whom the case has been assigned to resolve fee disputes (deciding whether an award is in order, and if it is, the amount due), thereby clearing the case from the calendar? If factfinding becomes necessary under the catalyst
The concurring opinion adds another argument against the catalyst rule: That opinion sees the rule as accommodating the "extortionist" who obtains relief because of "greater strength in financial resources, or superiority in media manipulation, rather than superiority in legal merit. " Ante, at 617, 618 (emphasis in original). This concern overlooks both the character of the rule and the judicial superintendence Congress ordered for all fee allowances. The catalyst rule was auxiliary to fee-shifting statutes whose primary purpose is "to promote the vigorous enforcement" of the civil rights laws. Christiansburg Garment Co., 434 U. S., at 422. To that end, courts deemed the conduct-altering catalyst that counted to be the substance of the case, not merely the plaintiff's atypically superior financial resources, media ties, or political clout. See supra, at 628. And Congress assigned responsibility for awarding fees not to automatons unable to recognize extortionists, but to judges expected and instructed to exercise "discretion." See supra, at 624-625, n. 1. So viewed, the catalyst rule provided no berth for nuisance suits, see Hooper, 37 F. 3d, at 292, or "thinly disguised forms of extortion," Tyler v. Corner Constr. Corp., 167 F.3d 1202, 1206 (CA8 1999) (citation omitted).
As to our attorney's fee precedents, the Court correctly observes, "[w]e have never had occasion to decide whether the term `prevailing party' allows an award of fees under the `catalyst theory,' " and "there is language in our cases supporting both petitioners and respondents." Ante, at 603, n. 5. It bears emphasis, however, that in determining whether fee shifting is in order, the Court in the past has placed greatest weight not on any "judicial imprimatur, " ante, at 605, but on the practical impact of the lawsuit.
The Court posits a "`merit' requirement of our prior cases." Ante, at 606. Maher, however, affirmed an award of attorney's fees based on a consent decree that "did not purport to adjudicate [plaintiff's] statutory or constitutional claims." 448 U. S., at 126, n. 8. The decree in Maher "explicitly stated that `nothing [therein was] intended to constitute an admission of fault by either party.' " Ibid. The catalyst rule, in short, conflicts with none of "our prior holdings, " ante, at 605.
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The Court states that the term "prevailing party" in feeshifting statutes has an "accepted meaning." Ante, at 608. If that is so, the "accepted meaning" is not the one the Court today announces. It is, instead, the meaning accepted by every Court of Appeals to address the catalyst issue before our 1987 decision in Hewitt, see supra, at 626, n. 4, and disavowed since then only by the Fourth Circuit, see supra, at 627, n. 5. A plaintiff prevails, federal judges have overwhelmingly agreed, when a litigated judgment, consent decree, out-of-court settlement, or the defendant's voluntary, postcomplaint payment or change in conduct in fact affords redress for the plaintiff's substantial grievances.
When this Court rejects the considered judgment prevailing in the Circuits, respect for our colleagues demands a cogent
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of Maryland et al. by J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, and Maureen M. Dove and Andrew H. Baida, Assistant Attorneys General, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Bill Pryor of Alabama, Bill Lockyer of California, Ken Salazar of Colorado, M. Jane Brady of Delaware, Robert A. Butterworth of Florida, James E. Ryan of Illinois, Carla J. Stovall of Kansas, Richard P. Ieyoub of Louisiana, Thomas F. Reilly of Massachusetts, Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon of Missouri, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Philip T. McLaughlin of New Hampshire, Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Betty D. Montgomery of Ohio, W. A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Hardy Myers of Oregon, D. Michael Fisher of Pennsylvania, Sheldon White house of Rhode Island, Charles M. Condon of South Carolina, Mark Barnett of South Dakota, Paul G. Summers of Tennessee, John Cornyn of Texas, Jan Graham of Utah, and Mark L. Earley of Virginia; for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Inc., by Charles A. Newman and Jerome H. Block; for Los Angeles County et al. by Elwood Lui and Jeffrey S. Sutton; for the National Conference of State Legislatures et al. by Richard Ruda, James I. Crowley, Jacqueline G. Cooper, and Paul J. Watford; and for the Pacific Legal Foundation by M. Reed Hopper.
Scatcherd v. Love, 166 F. 53 (CA6 1908), Wagner v. Wagner, 9 Pa. 214 (1848), and other cases cited by the dissent represent a rule adopted in some States that by settling a defendant "acknowledged his liability," Scatcherd, supra, at 56; see also Wagner, supra, at 215. That rule was hardly uniform among the States. Compare 15 C. J., Costs § 167, p. 89 (1918) (citing cases from 13 States which hold that a "settlement is equivalent to a confession of judgment"), with id., at 89-90, § 168, and n. a (citing cases from 11 States which hold that under a settlement "plaintiff cannot recover costs," because "[c]osts . . . can only follow a judgment or final determination of the action" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). I do not think these state cases (and Scatcherd, a federal case applying state law) justify expanding the federal meaning of "prevailing party" (based on a "confession of judgment" fiction) to include the party accepting an out-of-court settlement—much less to expand it beyond settlements, to the domain of the "catalyst theory."
The only case cited by the dissent in which the conclusion of acknowledgment of liability was rested on something other than a settlement is Board of Ed. of Madison Cty. v. Fowler, 192 Ga. 35, 14 S.E.2d 478 (1941), which, in one of the States that considered settlement an acknowledgment of liability, analogized compliance with what had been sought by a mandamus suit to a settlement. This is a slim reed upon which to rest the broad conclusion of a catalyst theory.
The dissent notes that two other cases were cited in Senate legislative history (Parham is cited in legislative history from both the Senate and House) which it claims support the catalyst theory. If legislative history in general is a risky interpretive tool, legislative history from only one legislative chamber—and consisting of the citation of Court of Appeals cases that surely few if any Members of Congress read—is virtually worthless. In any event, Kopet v. Esquire Realty Co., 523 F.2d 1005 (CA2 1975), does not support the catalyst theory because the defendant's voluntary compliance was not at issue. Fees were awarded on the dubious premise that discovery uncovered some documents of potential use in other litigation, making this more a case of an award of interim fees. Thomas v. Honey brook Mines, 428 F.2d 981 (CA3 1970), is also in apposite. There, the question was whether counsel for union members, whose fruitless efforts to sue the union had nonetheless spurred the union to sue the employer, should be paid out of a fund established by the union's victory. Whether the union members were "prevailing parties" in the union suit, or whether they were entitled to attorney's fees as "prevailing parties" in the earlier suit against the union, was not even at issue.
The concurrence notes that the other cited cases "all involve a judicial finding—or its equivalent, an acknowledgment by the defendant —of the merits of plaintiff's case." Ante, at 613 (emphasis added). I agree. In Fowler and Scatcherd, however, the "acknowledgment" consisted of nothing more than the defendant's voluntary provision to the plaintiff of the relief that the plaintiff sought. See also, e. g., Jeffersonville R. R. Co. v. Weinman, 39 Ind. 231 (1872) (costs awarded where defendant voluntarily paid damages; no admission or merits judgment); Wagner v. Wagner, 9 Pa. 214 (1848) (same); Hudson v. Johnson, 1 Va. 10 (1791) (same). Commonlaw courts thus regarded a defendant's voluntary compliance, by settlement or otherwise, as an "acknowledgment . . . of the merits" sufficient to warrant treatment of a plaintiff as prevailing. But cf. ante, at 604, n. 7 (opinion of the Court). One can only wonder why the concurring opinion would not follow the same practice today.
The Court features a case cited by the House as well as the Senate in the Reports on § 1988, Parham v. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co., 433 F.2d 421 (CA8 1970). The Court deems Parham consistent with its rejection of the catalyst rule, alternately because the Eighth Circuit made a "finding that the defendant had acted unlawfully," and because that court ordered the District Court to "`retain jurisdiction over the matter . . . to insure the continued implementation of the [defendant's] policy of equal employment opportunities.' " Ante, at 607, n. 9 (quoting 433 F. 2d, at 429). Congress did not fix on those factors, however: Nothing in either Report suggests that judicial findings or retention of jurisdiction is essential to an award of fees. The courts in Kopet and Thomas awarded fees based on claims as to which they neither made "a finding" nor "retain[ed] jurisdiction." (It nonetheless bears attention that, in line with the Court's description of Parham, a plaintiff could qualify as the "prevailing party" based on a finding or retention of jurisdiction.)
The concurring opinion also states that a prevailing party must obtain relief "in the lawsuit." Ante, at 615, 618. One can demur to that elaboration of the statutory text and still adhere to the catalyst rule. Under the rule, plaintiff's suit raising genuine issues must trigger defendant's voluntary action; plaintiff will not prevail under the rule if defendant "ceases . . . [his] offensive conduct" by dying or going bankrupt. See ante, at 615. A behavior-altering event like dying or bankruptcy occurs outside the lawsuit; a change precipitated by the lawsuit's claims and demand for relief is an occurrence brought about "through" or "in" the suit.
The Court additionally cites Texas State Teachers Assn. v. Garland Independent School Dist., 489 U.S. 782 (1989), which held, unanimously, that a plaintiff could become a "prevailing party" without obtaining relief on the "central issue in the suit." Id., at 790. Texas State Teachers linked fee awards to a "material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties," id., at 792-793, but did not say, as the Court does today, that the change must be "court-ordered," ante, at 604. The parties' legal relationship does change when the defendant stops engaging in the conduct that furnishes the basis for plaintiff's civil action, and that action, which both parties would otherwise have litigated, is dismissed.
The decision with language most unfavorable to the catalyst rule, Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103 (1992), does not figure prominently in the Court's opinion—and for good reason, for Farrar "involved no catalytic effect." See ante, at 603, n. 5 (quoting Friends of Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 194 (2000) (internal quotation marks omitted)); supra, at 627. Farrar held that a plaintiff who sought damages of $17 million, but received damages of $1, was a "prevailing party" nonetheless not entitled to fees. 506 U. S., at 113-116. In reinforcing the link between the right to a fee award and the "degree of success obtained," id., at 114 (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U. S., at 436), Farrar `s holding is consistent with the catalyst rule.