Supreme Court Update: Lefemine v. Wideman (12-168) and Order List

November 6, 2012 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court fans!

And so it begins. The Court issued its first opinion of the 2012 Term yesterday – a four-page per curiam decision in Lefemine v. Wideman (12-168) addressing the availability of attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 where a party has failed to secure any damages and has won only a prospective injunction requiring compliance with the law. (The Court issued another per curiam decision in late September, but that was technically part of its 2011 Term, as each Term officially begins on October 1.)

Steve Lefemine and members of the Columbia Christians for Life participated in demonstrations in Greenwood County, SC protesting the availability of abortions. After receiving complaints about the protestors' graphic signs depicting aborted fetuses, the police threatened to issue citations for breaching the peace. Lefemine objected, but eventually the protestors disbanded in the face of the police threats. Later, Lefemine's attorney informed the sheriff that the protestors would return to the same site with the same signs, and vowed to pursue "all available remedies" if the police interfered. The Chief Deputy responded with a warning of his own: "we will again conduct ourselves in exactly the same manner: order the person(s) to stop or face criminal sanctions." Fearing those sanctions, the protestors didn't demonstrate in Greenwood County for the next two years.

Eventually, Lefemine sued several Greenwood County police officers pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First Amendment rights and seeking nominal damages, a declaratory judgment, a permanent injunction, and attorney's fees. The District Court granted summary judgment in Lefemine's favor and enjoined the defendants from "engaging in content-based restrictions" on the display of the signs. The District Court did not, however, grant Lefemine's request for nominal damages, finding that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. It also denied Lefemine's request for attorney's fees.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of fees, finding that Lefemine was not a prevailing party under § 1988 because the District Court awarded no damages and the injunction merely required defendants to comply with the law in the future. Thus, the judges reasoned, the District Court's ruling did not "alte[r] the relative positions of the parties."

The Supreme Court disagreed, explaining bluntly that a party prevails "when actual relief on the merits of his claim materially alters the legal relationship between the parties by modifying the defendant's behavior in a way that directly benefits the plaintiff. . . .[W]e have repeatedly held that an injunction or declaratory judgment, like a damages award, will usually satisfy that test." According to the Court, Lefemine was a prevailing party because his suit succeeded in removing the defendants' threat of sanctions should he and his fellow demonstrators carry their signs.

The Court also invited the SG to file a brief in BG Group PLC v. Argentina (12-138) addressing whether, in disputes involving a multi-staged dispute resolution process, a court or instead the arbitrator determines whether a precondition to arbitration has been satisfied.

With the Court's wheels now turning, we'll be back soon with more.

Kim, Jenny & Julie

From the Appellate and Complex Legal Issues Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana. For more information, contact Kim Rinehart or any other member of the Practice Group at 203-498-4400