Hensley v. Eckerhart

LOCATION: Kansas State Legislature

DOCKET NO.: 81-1244
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 461 US 424 (1983)
ARGUED: Nov 03, 1982
DECIDED: May 16, 1983

Michael L. Boicourt - on behalf of the Petitioners
Stanley J. Eichner - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case


Media for Hensley v. Eckerhart

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 03, 1982 in Hensley v. Eckerhart

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in Hensley against Eckerhart.

Mr. Boicourt, I think you may proceed when you are ready.

Michael L. Boicourt:

Thank you.

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court, as oral argument is presented in this case today, the litigation is in its tenth year.

The only issue remaining for resolution before this Court is one involving the attorneys' fees awarded by the district court and affirmed by the court of appeals.

The case will require an interpretation and application of the Civil Rights Attorneys' Fees Awards Act of 1976, Title 42, Section 1988.

On behalf of Petitioners, I urge the Court to adopt the principle that award of attorneys' fees under the statute should fairly and accurately reflect the extent to which a plaintiff has prevailed on the substantial claims in his case.

I ask the Court to accept the principle that the Attorneys' Fees Award Act does not compensate a plaintiff in a civil rights case for his failures, and it does not penalize a defendant in a civil rights case for his substantial successes.

On the facts, the district court approved in this case an attorneys' fee award of over $133,000.

That represented 2,557 principal hours as found by the trial court.

Again, that award was affirmed per curium by the court of appeals.

No attempt was made by the district court to proportion the fee to reflect the extent to which the plaintiff succeeded on claims and the extent to which the defendants successfully defended, in effect, demonstrating that no constitutional deprivation had occurred with respect to certain claims in the lawsuit.

The district court itself found in its opinion relating to fees that the defendants did prevail on some of the issues.

Nevertheless, it awarded in practical effect fees for every hour spent by plaintiff's attorneys on the case without respect to whether they prevailed or lost on specific issues.

This case involved a comprehensive--

Warren E. Burger:

Would that cover frivolous claims made if they showed they spent the time on them?

Michael L. Boicourt:

--Yes, Your Honor.

I think there were a few claims in this case that because they were not abandoned prior to trial had become close to being frivolous by being presented in the courtroom.

There were other claims in the case which were unsuccessful which I do not claim to you were frivolous.

Nevertheless, they were unsuccessful.

And Congress provided fees for prevailing civil rights litigants, not fees for merely asserting a civil rights claim.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Would you give me an example of those you regarded as frivolous?

Michael L. Boicourt:

Yes, Your Honor.

I think by the time they got to the point in the lawsuit where they were trying to prove that defendants over-relied upon medication in controlling the patients in the forensic unit, that had become frivolous, because their own experts, all of whom had been contacted, employed some years in advance of the case, did not support the claim.

They all came to the courtroom and testified there was no evidence of overmedication of patients.

I think their failure to abandon that was frivolous.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Any other claims besides that one?

Michael L. Boicourt:

I think with respect to the mail policy, the fact that the mail policy of the forensic unit was amended in 1977... That was during the duration of the lawsuit.

There was also some contemporary Eighth Circuit precedent which dealt with mail issues in the prison context.

I think their failure to have abandoned that claim and to have presented it at trial when it was clearly... the mail policy was consistent with what was being done--