Christiansburg Garment Company v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

PETITIONER: Christiansburg Garment Company
RESPONDENT: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
LOCATION: Milwaukee County Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 76-1383
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 434 US 412 (1978)
ARGUED: Nov 28, 1977 / Nov 29, 1977
DECIDED: Jan 23, 1978

ADVOCATES:
Thomas S. Martin - for respondent
William W. Sturges - for petitioner

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Christiansburg Garment Company v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 28, 1977 in Christiansburg Garment Company v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 29, 1977 in Christiansburg Garment Company v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 23, 1978 in Christiansburg Garment Company v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the court in number 76-1383 Christiansburg Garment Company against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will be announced by Mr. Justice Stewart.

Potter Stewart:

This case is here by reason of the grant of writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

A section of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that in any action or proceeding under this title.

The court in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, a reasonable attorney fee.

The question in this case is under what circumstances an attorney's fee should be allowed when the defendant is the prevailing party in a Title VII action.

A question about which the Federal Courts have expressed divergent views.

The respondent commission sued the petitioner company alleging that it had engaged in discriminatory employment practices in violation of Title VII.

The District Court ultimately granted summary judgment in favor of the company.

The company then petitioned for the allowance of attorney's fees against the Commission.

The District Court concluded that "an award of attorney's fees was not justified and the Court of Appeals agreed in a divided vote.

We granted certiorari to consider an important question of Federal Law.

The company contends that the criterion for a successful plaintiff should apply equally as a guide to the award of attorney's fees to a successful defendant.

Its submission, in short, is that every prevailing defendant in a Title VII action should receive an allowance' of attorney's fees "unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust."

The respondent Commission, by contrast, argues that the prevailing defendant should receive an award of attorney's fees only when it is found that the plaintiff's action was brought in bad faith.

We have concluded that neither of these positions is correct.

For the reasons set out in the written opinion of the court filed today.

We have concluded that a district court may in its discretion award attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant in a Title VII case upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation, even though not brought in subjective bad faith.

In denying attorney's fees to the company in this case, the District Court focused on precisely these standards.

The court found that "the Commission's action in bringing suit cannot be characterized as unreasonable or meritless" because "the basis upon which petitioner prevailed was an issue of first impression requiring judicial resolution" and because the "Commission's statutory interpretation was not frivolous."

The court thus exercised its discretion squarely within the permissible bounds of the law.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals upholding the decision of the District Court is affirmed.

Mr. Justice Blackmun took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Stewart.