Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources

PETITIONER: Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc.
RESPONDENT: West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources
LOCATION: White House

DOCKET NO.: 99-1848
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 532 US 598 (2001)
ARGUED: Feb 27, 2001
DECIDED: May 29, 2001

ADVOCATES:
Beth S. Brinkmann - Department of Justice, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
David P. Cleek - Charleston, West Virginia, argued the cause for the respondents
Webster J. Arceneaux, III - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. operates care homes that provide assisted living to their residents. Buckhannon filed an inspection by the West Virginia fire marshal's office because some residents were incapable of "self-preservation." Buckhannon brought suit against the State and others arguing that the "self-preservation" requirement violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Afterwards the state legislature eliminated the requirement and the District Court dismissed the case as moot. Buckhannon then requested attorney's fees as the "prevailing party" under the FHAA and ADA. Buckhannon based its claim on 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. The District Court denied the motion. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Question

Does the term "prevailing party" include 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?

Media for Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 27, 2001 in Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 29, 2001 in Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinions of the Court to announce in two cases: the first 99-1848 Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. versus West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

Buckhannon, which is the petitioner, operates in assisted living residences in West Virginia.

It failed the state fire inspection because some of its residents were incapable of removing themselves from dangerous situations, which the state law required.

Facing in order to close its facilities Buckhannon brought suit against the State arguing that this self-preservation requirement violated two federal antidiscrimination statutes.

In the midst of this litigation the West Virginia Legislature eliminated the self-preservation requirement and the District Court dismissed the case as moot.

Buckhannon then requested that the State pay its attorney’s fees, arguing that its lawsuit had acted as a catalyst for change.

Federal Statutes permit such an award to the prevailing party, but both the District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that Buckhannon was not in these circumstances the ‘prevailing party’.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm.

In designating those parties eligible for an award of attorney’s fees Congress used the term ‘prevailing party’.

This is a legal term of art, ‘a prevailing party’ is one who has been awarded some relief by the Court.

Although, we have not previously addressed the catalyst theory pressed by Buckhannon, our prior decisions on this subject have only allowed an award of attorney’s fees where the plaintiff had prevailed on the merits of at least some of its claims or had obtained a court order change in the legal relationship with the parties.

The catalyst theory, however, does not require that the lawsuit have legal merit and a defendant’s voluntary change in conduct although perhaps accomplishing what the plaintiff sought to achieve by the lawsuit, lacks the necessary judicial imprimatur on the change.

Our precedents thus counsel against awarding attorney's fees without a corresponding alteration in the legal relationship with the parties.

Buckhannon argues that the legislative history to these acts supports its broad reading of prevailing party, but we are not convinced by that, we think the legislative history is at best ambiguous, and this is insufficient to overcome the plain text of the statute.

Particularly, in the light of the well established rule that parties will bear their own litigation expenses absent explicit statutory authority, to the contrary and while the parties make various policies arguments both for and against the catalyst theory, we have no authority to disregard clear statutory language in our prior holdings on policy grounds.

Because Buckhannon has not been awarded any judicial relief in this case, it is not the prevailing party and therefore not entitled to attorney’s fees.

Justice Scalia has filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Thomas has joined.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

I have filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer.

Under West Virginia’s so-called self-preservation rule, 102 year old Dorsey Pierce faced eviction from an elder care home Buckhannon because the rule judged her too frail.

Buckhannon joined by Pierce commenced litigation under Federal Civil Rights laws to stop West Virginia from requiring Buckhannon to evict Pierce and others similarly disabled as the price of remaining in business.

In response to the suit, the Trial Court issued an immediate stop order discovering in suit, and West Virginia ultimately decided to change the rule that would have forced Pierce out of Buckhannon.

Buckhannon then sought attorney’s fee, urging that it had for all practical purposes prevailed in the case and that its attorneys where the catalyst put the change in West Virginia Law.

Our proof of such a claim until today’s decision in 11 of the 12 Federal Judicial Circuits; Courts had discretion to award these.

Now, across the country and legions of such cases, on the scores of federal fee shifting statutes, no fee award can be made.

Persuaded that Congress intended to authorize fees in cases like Dorsey Pierce’ I dissent from this Court's legally, unwarranted, stunningly harsh judgment.

Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer agree with me that the assessment of the large majority of federal judges was the right one.

When the lawsuit prompts the very relief the plaintiff seeks it, that plaintiff is the prevailing party eligible for an award of attorney’s fees even if she has not gained a court entry memorializing her victory.

When the Court rejects, as it does today, the considered opinion, long held in so many Federal Circuits respect for our colleagues, demand a more cogent explanation than the court has given.

Congress enacted the fee-shifting statute at issue to ensure that non-affluent plaintiffs would have effective access to the nation’s courts to secure enforcement of laws enacted to advance their civil rights.

I was little concerned for this design inescapably evident in the House and Senate reports.