JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.
The issue in this case arises from a postjudgment request for an award of attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U. S. C. § 1988. The question is whether such a request is a "motion to alter or
This litigation began in March 1976, when the petitioner Richard White filed suit against respondent New Hampshire Department of Employment Security (NHDES) and its Commissioner. White claimed that the respondent failed to make timely determinations of certain entitlements to unemployment compensation, thereby violating an applicable provision of the Social Security Act, 42 U. S. C. § 503(a)(1), the Due Process Clause of the Constitution of the United States, and 42 U. S. C. § 1983. Alleging federal jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. § 1343, he sought declaratory and injunctive relief and "such other and further relief as may be equitable and just." App. 15. His complaint did not specifically request attorney's fees.
Following certification of the case as a class action, the District Court granted relief on petitioner's claim under the Social Security Act.
Five days after the entry of judgment, counsel to White wrote to respondent's counsel, suggesting that they meet to discuss the petitioner's entitlement to attorney's fees as a prevailing party under 42 U. S. C. § 1988. No meeting appears to have been held. On June 7, 1979, approximately
In a hearing in the District Court, respondent's counsel claimed he had been surprised by petitioner's postjudgment requests for attorney's fees.
Shortly thereafter, respondent moved to vacate the consent decree. It argued, in effect, that it had thought its total liability fixed by the consent decree and that it would not have entered a settlement knowing that further liability might still be established. The District Court denied the motion to vacate.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the District Court's decision to award attorney's fees under § 1988. 629 F.2d 697 (1980). The court held that petitioner's postjudgment motion for attorney's fees constituted a motion to alter or amend the judgment, governed by Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and its 10-day time limit. 629 F. 2d, at 699.
In holding as it did, the Court of Appeals recognized that § 1988 provided for the award of attorney's fees "as part of the costs."
The Court of Appeals found this case distinguishable from Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978), in which this Court characterized attorney's fees, under the Fees Act, as "costs" taxable against a State. In Hutto, the Court of Appeals reasoned, the narrow question was whether the States have Eleventh Amendment immunity against liability for attorney's fees. The question was not whether attorney's fees are costs under Rule 54. The court also dismissed the argument that a request for attorney's fees is "a collateral and independent
Because other Courts of Appeals have reached different conclusions about the applicability of Rule 59(e) to post-judgment motions for the award of attorney's fees,
Rule 59(e) was added to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1946. Its draftsmen had a clear and narrow aim. According to the accompanying Advisory Committee Report, the Rule was adopted to "mak[e] clear that the district court possesses the power" to rectify its own mistakes in the period immediately following the entry of judgment.
Consistently with this original understanding, the federal courts generally have invoked Rule 59(e) only to support reconsideration of matters properly encompassed in a decision on the merits. E. g., Browder v. Director, Illinois Dept. of Corrections, 434 U.S. 257 (1978). By contrast, a request for attorney's fees under § 1988 raises legal issues collateral to the main cause of action
Section 1988 provides for awards of attorney's fees only to a "prevailing party." Regardless of when attorney's fees are requested, the court's decision of entitlement to fees will therefore require an inquiry separate from the decision on
As the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently stated:
In holding Rule 59(e) applicable to the postjudgment fee request in this case, the Court of Appeals emphasized the need to prevent fragmented appellate review and unfair postjudgment surprise to nonprevailing defendants. See 629 F. 2d, at 701-704. These are important concerns. But we do not think that the application of Rule 59(e) to § 1988 fee requests is either necessary or desirable to promote finality, judicial economy, or fairness.
The application of Rule 59(e) to postjudgment fee requests could yield harsh and unintended consequences. Section
The 10-day limit of Rule 59(e) also could deprive counsel of the time necessary to negotiate private settlements of fee questions. If so, the application of Rule 59(e) actually could generate increased litigation of fee questions — a result ironically at odds with the claim that it would promote judicial economy.
For the reasons stated in this opinion, the decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for action consistent with this opinion.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concurring in the judgment.
I agree with much that is said in the Court's opinion and I therefore concur, of course, in its judgment. I wish, however, that the Court had gone one step further.
We granted certiorari in this case, as the Court notes, ante, at 450, to resolve the existing conflict among the Courts of Appeals regarding postjudgment requests for attorney's fees under 42 U. S. C. § 1988. Three Circuits have held that these fee requests are not within Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), but are within the reach of Rules 54(d) and 58. Two have held that the requests are subject to Rule 59(e). And a sixth has held that such a request is not governed by any of the three Rules. See ante, at 450, n. 9. The Court today settles the conflict so far as Rule 59(e) and its inapplicability to a fee request are concerned. But it leaves unanswered the applicability of Rules 54(d) and 58 because "this question is unnecessary to our disposition of this case." Ante, at 454 and this page, n. 17.
I would answer that question, and hold that Rules 54(d) and 58 also do not apply to postjudgment § 1988 fees requests. I believe that the federal courts and the lawyers that practice in them should have an answer so that we shall not have yet another case to decide before the correct procedure for evaluating such requests is settled for all concerned.
"(e) Motion to Alter or Amend a Judgment
"A motion to alter or amend the judgment shall be served not later than 10 days after entry of the judgment."
"[i]n any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of sections 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 of this title, title IX of Public Law 92-318 [20 U. S. C. 1681 et seq.], . . . the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs."
"Except when express provision therefor is made either in a statute of the United States or in these rules, costs shall be allowed as of course to the prevailing party unless the court otherwise directs . . . . Costs may be taxed by the clerk on one day's notice. On motion served within 5 days thereafter, the action of the clerk may be reviewed by the court."
Unless so defined by statute, attorney's fees are not generally considered "costs" taxable under Rule 54(d). Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240 (1975).
"Entry of the judgment shall not be delayed for taxing of costs."
This case arises in a posture different from that of Sprague. In Sprague the prevailing plaintiff had produced a "benefit" commonly available to others similarly situated. Although she "neither avowed herself to be the representative of a class nor . . . establish[ed] a fund in which others could participate," id., at 166, her lawsuit had a stare decisis effect that inured to the benefit of others asserting similar claims. It was from the benefits accrued by them — not, as in this case, from the defendant — that the plaintiff sought an equitable award of fees.
Because of this difference between the cases, we cannot agree that Sprague controls the question now before us. Nonetheless, we agree with petitioner to this extent: Sprague at least establishes that fee questions are not inherently or necessarily subsumed by a decision on the merits. See also New York Gaslight Club, Inc. v. Carey, 447 U.S. 54, 66 (1980) (a claimed entitlement to attorney's fees is sufficiently independent of the merits action under Title VII to support a federal suit "solely to obtain an award of attorney's fees for legal work done in state and local proceedings").