JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.
Section 706(k) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(k), provides in relevant part that a "court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the [Equal Employment Opportunity] Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." In this case we must determine under what circumstances § 706(k) permits a court to award attorney's fees against intervenors who have not been found to have violated the Civil Rights Act or any other federal law.
This controversy began in 1970 when respondents, female flight attendants of Trans World Airlines, brought this class action against TWA claiming that its policy of terminating flight attendants who became mothers constituted sex discrimination that violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e et seq. Respondents were represented by petitioner's predecessor union, the Air Line Stewards
To come, finally, to the aspect of this lengthy litigation giving rise to the issues now before us: Respondents' attorneys petitioned the District Court for an award of attorney's fees against petitioner under § 706(k) of the Civil Rights Act
In Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240 (1975), this Court reaffirmed what has come to be known as the "American Rule." Put simply, "[i]n the United States, the prevailing litigant is ordinarily not entitled to collect a reasonable attorneys' fee from the loser." Id., at 247. At issue in this case is one of the congressionally created exceptions to that rule. As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub. L. 88-352, Tit. VII, 78 Stat. 253, Congress enacted § 706(k), 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(k), which provides that a federal district court "in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the [EEOC] or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee." Although the text of the provision does not specify any limits upon the district courts' discretion to allow or disallow fees, in a system of laws discretion is rarely without limits. In the case of § 706(k) and other federal fee-shifting statutes,
Similarly, in Christiansburg Garment, supra, we held that even though the term "prevailing party" in § 706(k) does not distinguish between plaintiffs and defendants, the principle of Newman would not be applied to a prevailing defendant. Unlike the Title VII plaintiff, we reasoned, the Title VII defendant is not " `the chosen instrument of Congress,' " 434 U. S., at 418, quoting Newman, supra, at 402; and unlike the losing defendant, the losing plaintiff is not "a violator of federal law," 434 U. S., at 418. We also rejected, however, the losing plaintiff's argument that sound exercise of § 706(k) discretion would remand the prevailing defendant to the American Rule, providing attorney's fees only if the plaintiff's suit was brought in bad faith. Such an unequal disposition,
The dissent contends that construing § 706(k) in such fashion as to allow competing rights and equities to be taken into account "ignore[s] its express language," post, at 771, in two ways: first, because "the only party mentioned in § 706(k) is `the prevailing party,' " and thus, "when a district court decides whether to award fees, it must be guided first and foremost by the interests of the prevailing party," ibid. This seems to us something less than an "express language" argument — and also a non sequitur. To say that only the prevailing party gets fees is not to say that the prevailing party's interests are always first and foremost in determining whether he gets them. In any case, as discussed above, we decided long ago that in some circumstances the interests of the losing party trump those of the prevailing party under § 706(k), so that the latter cannot obtain fees. See Christiansburg Garment, supra. The second respect in which the dissent contends we ignore the "express language" of the statute is that we fail to give effect to its "hostility to categorical rules for the award of attorney's fees," post, at 771, supposedly enshrined in the language that the court "in its discretion, may allow" (emphasis added) a reasonable attorney's fee. We have already described how the law in general, and the law applied to § 706(k) in particular, does not interpret a grant of discretion to eliminate all "categorical
Proceeding, then, to interpret the statute in light of the competing equities that Congress normally takes into account, we conclude that district courts should similarly award Title VII attorney's fees against losing intervenors only where the intervenors' action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. It is of course true that the central purpose of § 706(k) is to vindicate the national policy against wrongful discrimination by encouraging victims to make the wrongdoers pay at law — assuring that the incentive to such suits will not be reduced by the prospect of attorney's fees that consume the recovery. See Newman, supra, at 401-402. Assessing fees against blameless intervenors, however, is not essential to that purpose. In every lawsuit in which there is a prevailing Title VII plaintiff there will also be a losing defendant who has committed a legal wrong. That defendant will, under Newman, be liable for all of the fees expended by the plaintiff in litigating the claim against him, and that liability alone creates a substantial added incentive for victims of Title VII violations to sue. In the present case, for example, TWA paid over $1.25 million in fees to respondents' attorneys. Respondents argue that this incentive will be reduced by the potential presence of intervenors
But even if the inability generally to recover fees against intervenors did create some marginal disincentive against Title VII suits, we would still have to weigh that against other considerations, as we did in Christiansburg Garment. Foremost among these is the fact that, in contrast to losing Title VII defendants who are held presumptively liable for attorney's fees, losing intervenors like petitioner have not been found to have violated anyone's civil rights. See Christiansburg Garment, 434 U. S., at 418. In this case, for example, petitioner became a party to the lawsuit not because it bore any responsibility for the practice alleged to have violated Title VII, but because it sought to protect the bargained-for seniority rights of its employees. Awarding attorney's fees against such an intervenor would further neither the general policy that wrongdoers make whole those whom they have injured nor Title VII's aim of deterring employers from engaging in discriminatory practices.
Our cases have emphasized the crucial connection between liability for violation of federal law and liability for attorney's fees under federal fee-shifting statutes. In Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985), the plaintiffs had brought suit under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 against police officers in their individual capacities, alleging that the officers had violated their constitutional rights. After settling with the officers,
See also id., at 165 ("[L]iability on the merits and responsibility for fees go hand in hand"); id., at 168 ("[F]ee liability runs with merits liability"); ibid. ("Section 1988 simply does not create fee liability where merits liability is nonexistent"); id., at 171 ("[F]ee and merits liability run together"). Cf. Supreme Court of Virginia v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 446 U.S. 719, 738 (1980) (holding that § 1988 fees were not recoverable against defendants immune from merits liability). We have also distinguished between wrongdoers and the blameless in the related area of constraints upon district courts' discretion to fashion Title VII remedies. See, e. g., Ford Motor Co. v. EEOC, 458 U.S. 219, 239-240 (1982); General Building Contractors Assn., Inc. v. Pennsylvania, 458 U.S. 375, 399, 400 (1982).
While innocent intervenors raising nor-Title VII claims are not, like Title VII plaintiffs, "the chosen instrument[s] of Congress," Christiansburg Garment, supra, at 418, neither are they disfavored participants in Title VII proceedings.
Intervention that is in good faith is by definition not a means of prolonging litigation, but rather of protecting legal rights — ranging from contract-based rights, see, e. g., Richardson v. Alaska Airlines, Inc., 750 F.2d 763 (CA9 1984) (collective-bargaining agreement), to statutory rights, see, e. g., Prate v. Freedman, 583 F.2d 42 (CA2 1978) (Title VII), to constitutional rights, see, e. g., Reeves v. Harrell, 791 F.2d 1481 (CA11 1986) (Equal Protection Clause); Grano v. Barry, 251 U. S. App. D. C. 289, 783 F.2d 1104 (1986) (Takings Clause) — which are entitled to no less respect than the rights asserted by plaintiffs in the subject suit. In this case petitioner intervened to assert the collectively bargained contract rights of its incumbent employees, rights that neither respondents nor TWA had any interest in protecting in their settlement agreement. Just this Term we recognized that competitive seniority rights — the specific interests asserted by petitioner — are among the most important ingredients in flight attendants' collective-bargaining agreements. See Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Flight Attendants, 489 U.S. 426, 428-430 (1989). While a labor union's good-faith advocacy of its members' vital interests was not the specific type of conduct § 706(k) was intended to encourage, it is certainly not conduct that the statute aimed to deter.
Of course, an intervenor may sometimes raise an argument that brings into question not merely the appropriateness of the remedy but the plaintiff's very entitlement to relief. Here, for example, petitioner advanced one argument that would have prevented the District Court's approval of any relief for Subclass B respondents. But that an intervenor can advance the same argument as a defendant does not mean that the two must be treated alike for purposes of fee assessments. The central fact remains that petitioner litigated (and lost) not to avoid liability for violation of the law
* * *
Because the courts below incorrectly presumed that petitioner was liable for attorney's fees to respondents, and accordingly made no inquiry as to whether petitioner's intervention was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE STEVENS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concurring in the judgment.
For me, the Court's approach to the difficult problem of an intervenor's fee liability is not fully satisfying. The Court notes that an intervenor is not like a culpable Title VII defendant because it is not a wrongdoer, and holds that, as a result, the rule that a defendant is presumptively liable for fees if the Title VII plaintiff prevails cannot be applied to an intervenor. The Court also acknowledges that "innocent intervenors
Despite the fact, however, that, from Congress' point of view, an intervenor is not like a Title VII plaintiff, the Court today fashions a fee-shifting rule that essentially ignores this difference. The result is presumptively to place the additional cost of litigating third-party rights on the prevailing Title VII plaintiff, whom Congress has assumed lacks the resources to bear them.
This result is neither fair nor necessary. It seems to me that the first step toward solving the problem of intervenor fee liability is to recognize that it is the Title VII wrongdoer, and not the Title VII plaintiff, whose conduct has made it necessary to unsettle the expectations of a third party who itself is not responsible for the Title VII plaintiff's injuries. The Court states that the "defendant will, under Newman, be liable for all of the fees expended by the plaintiff in litigating the claim against him," ante, at 761 (emphasis added) — and thereby tacitly assumes that the defendant's fee liability goes no further. I see no basis for that assumption. Addressing and adjusting the rights of a third party are parts of the social cost of remedying a Title VII violation. That cost, as well as the cost to the plaintiff of vindicating his or her own rights, would not have existed but for the conduct of the Title VII defendant. I see nothing in the language of the statute or in our precedents to foreclose a prevailing plaintiff from turning to the Title VII defendant for reimbursement of all the costs of obtaining a remedy, including the costs of assuring that third-party interests are dealt with fairly.
Thus, where an intervenor enters the case to defend third-party interests and the plaintiff prevails, the costs of the intervention, in my view, should presumptively be borne by
This is not to say that an intervenor may never be held liable for fees. The Court in Christiansburg held that § 706(k) of Title VII must be interpreted as a full-scale departure from the American Rule, in order to assure that no party to a Title VII case has an incentive to maintain a position that is taken in good faith but is nonetheless "groundless." 434 U. S., at 419. That rule should apply to an intervenor, as well as to a plaintiff. But the adjustment that should take place is one between the Title VII defendant, whose conduct implicated third-party interests, and the intervenor who seeks to protect those interests. In my view, liability for fees should shift from the defendant to the intervenor if the intervenor's position was "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." Id., at 421. There is no reason why the defendant should be made to pay the cost of frivolous assertions of third-party rights, or that an intervenor should be without incentive to exercise some self-restraint in the position it takes in a Title VII case.
The only potential "disadvantage" to the rule I would adopt is that it would diminish, to some extent, the gains a Title VII defendant could reap from settlement: under my rule, the defendant's fee liability would not cease with its decision to settle the case. The result will not be to deter all settlements, however: it will deter only those that unfairly impose disproportionate costs on third parties.
An examination of the considerations that enter into a settlement decision explains why this is so. As a general rule, a defendant framing a settlement offer considers his remedial
Under the rule I would adopt, a district court would be permitted to consider the settlement agreement's fairness to third parties as a factor in determining whether the intervenor's opposition to the settlement was reasonable. The intervenor therefore would have the incentive to acquiesce in a settlement proposal that fairly assesses the likely result at trial, because intervention to oppose a settlement which is fair across the board will expose the intervenor to fee liability. And the defendant would have the incentive to consider third-party interests in its settlement proposal, lest it be assessed attorney's fees when third parties reasonably intervene to object to a settlement that is unfair from their point of view. This would be a desirable result, not a reason to reject the fee-shifting rule I propose.
Accordingly, I concur in the judgment of the Court to reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and to remand the case for further proceedings. But I do not join the Court's opinion insofar as it requires a prevailing plaintiff to bear the cost of intervention-related attorney's fees unless the intervenor's position is found to be "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." That result needlessly burdens the Title VII plaintiff with litigation costs imposed on
On remand of this case, the court, if it followed my view, first would determine whether the union's position in opposition to the settlement was frivolous or unreasonable. If the court so concluded, the union would be liable for fees. But if the court concluded that the union's position had sufficient merit to bar the assessment of fees against it, the court would go on to consider whether, in the posture of the case, the plaintiffs may recover their attorney's fees from TWA. In particular, the court would determine whether the plaintiffs have preserved a claim for additional fees against TWA and, if so, whether the provisions of the settlement agreement that governs TWA's fee liability foreclose any additional fee award. If the claim has been preserved and additional fees may be recovered from TWA consistent with the settlement agreement, the plaintiffs would be entitled to recover from TWA the attorney's fees due to the intervention.
JUSTICE MARSHALL, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN joins, dissenting.
Nearly two decades ago, female flight attendants of Trans World Airlines (TWA) brought a class action challenging the airline's practice of terminating all female flight attendants who became mothers, while retaining their male counterparts who became fathers. After almost 10 years of litigation, the parties reached a comprehensive settlement. At this point, petitioner Independent Federation of Flight Attendants (IFFA) intervened to oppose the settlement on two grounds: first, that untimely filing of charges by certain plaintiffs deprived the District Court of jurisdiction to approve their claims for equitable relief; and second, that reinstatement of the plaintiffs with full retroactive "competitive" seniority would violate the collective-bargaining agreement between TWA and IFFA's incumbent members. The plaintiffs spent nearly three years and $200,000 successfully defending
The majority begins its opinion by quoting § 706(k), but then proceeds to ignore its express language. Section 706(k) states that a "court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee." While § 706(k) provides no detailed rules as to when attorney's fees should be awarded, its terms nonetheless make two things clear. First, the only party mentioned in § 706(k) is "the prevailing party." Thus, when a district court decides whether to award fees, it must be guided first and foremost by the interests of the prevailing party. See Texas State Teachers Assn. v. Garland Independent School Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 790 (1989) ("Congress clearly contemplated that . . . fee awards would be available where a party has prevailed on an important matter in the course of the litigation . . .") (internal quotations omitted); Charles v. Daley, 846 F.2d 1057, 1064 (CA7 1988) (civil rights fee-shifting statutes "fashion the parameters of eligibility for fee awards, rather than . . . fix with precision the bounds of liability for such awards") (emphasis in original). Second, § 706(k) contains "permissive and discretionary language," Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 418 (1978), reflecting Congress' hostility to categorical rules for the award of attorney's fees.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 embodies a national commitment to eradicate discrimination. Congress intended not only "to make the wrongdoers pay at law," ante, at 761, but more broadly to make victims of discrimination whole. See Albemarle Paper Co., supra, at 418. Given the scarcity of public resources available for enforcement, individuals injured by discrimination serve as "the chosen instrument of Congress to vindicate `a policy that Congress considered of the highest priority.' " Christiansburg Garment, supra, at 418, quoting Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400,
To justify a result contrary to the language of § 706(k) and the objectives of Title VII, the Court offers two propositions: first, that liability on the merits is a prerequisite for liability for fees; and second, that the interests of intervenors are as important as the civil rights concerns of plaintiffs. Neither assertion withstands scrutiny. Nor does either explain why the majority has adopted a blanket rule that all intervenors must be treated like plaintiffs for purposes of fee liability.
This Court has never held that one is immune from liability for attorney's fees absent a finding of liability on the merits. On the contrary, we have expressly recognized that a district court's authority to award fees in civil rights cases does not
In Christiansburg Garment, for example, we held that prevailing defendants could recover fees from civil rights plaintiffs only if the suit was "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." 434 U. S., at 421. We explained that the two "equitable considerations" that warrant an award of attorney's fees when a plaintiff prevails — compensating the party who is the chosen instrument for enforcing civil rights laws, and assessing fees "against a violator of federal law" — are "wholly absent" when a defendant prevails against a plaintiff. Id., at 418. The majority reads Christiansburg Garment as mandating that both considerations be satisfied before attorney's fees can be imposed. But our holding that a plaintiff could be assessed attorney's fees in certain circumstances plainly demonstrates that liability on the merits is not always a precondition for liability for fees.
Nor does this Court's decision in Supreme Court of Virginia v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 446 U.S. 719 (1980), support the proposition that liability on the merits
Aside from its unpersuasive assertion that fee liability must be conditioned on a finding of wrongdoing, the majority never even attempts to explain why it adopts a categorical rule directing district courts to treat all intervenors like civil rights plaintiffs. Whatever validity such treatment might have where an intervenor raises a civil rights claim, there is absolutely no justification for it where, as in this case, an intervenor asserts non-civil-rights claims of third parties, or where an intervenor raises no third-party claims at all.
The majority also seeks to justify its interpretation of § 706(k) by asserting the importance of the claims asserted by intervenors. With respect to this case, the majority states that IFFA's contract-based rights "are entitled to no less respect than the rights asserted by plaintiffs in the subject suit." Ante, at 765. The issue, however, is not whether the claims are entitled to equal respect, but whether fees are beyond the discretion of the District Court.
Finally, the majority ignores the likely consequence of today's decision. In the future, defendants can rely on intervenors
Colleen K. Connell, Harvey Grossman, John A. Powell, and Steven R. Shapiro filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae.