Hewitt v. Helms

LOCATION: United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Charlotte Division

DOCKET NO.: 85-1630
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 482 US 755 (1987)
ARGUED: Mar 04, 1987
DECIDED: Jun 19, 1987

Lawrence G. Wallace - as amicus curiae supporting Petitioners
Robert Harold Vesely - on behalf of the Respondents
Thomas G. Saylor, Jr. - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Hewitt v. Helms

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 04, 1987 in Hewitt v. Helms

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Saylor, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Thomas G. Saylor, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The issue in this case, simply stated, is whether a civil rights claimant who wins nothing in the course of his lawsuit is entitled to attorney's fees.

The answer simply is no.

The facts of this case are as follows, Your Honors.

Aaron Helms, a state prisoner, was found guilty of prison misconduct as a result of his involvement in a prison riot.

In a Section 1983 action brought against state corrections officials, Helms challenged this finding of guilt which had been based on information supplied by a confidential informant on due process grounds.

Helms sought equitable relief and money damages.

While the action was pending in the district court, Helms was paroled from prison.

The district court entered summary judgment for the state officials and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

The circuit court remanded the case to the district court to determine the issue of petitioner's claim of official immunity, and also to determine the appropriateness and availability of the relief requested by Helms.

On remand Helms abandoned any claims other than his request for damages.

The district court granted judgement for the officials, finding them to be immune from liability for damages, and the court of appeals affirmed.

Helms then petitioned for attorney's fees which the district court denied, finding that Helms had not prevailed in this litigation.

The court of appeals reversed and awarded fees, concluding that its statement of the law on prison informants in its first opinion was sufficient to qualify Helms as a prevailing party under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act.

In addition, the court of appeals directed the district court to determine whether Helms' suit was a catalyst for a state regulation addressing the use of informant testimony which was passed, or promulgated after judgment had been entered for the officials.

There are two major reasons, Your Honors, why a plaintiff like Helms should not be entitled to attorney's fees.

First of all, to award attorney's fees to a claimant who has obtained no personal benefit or no actual relief as a result of his suit would violate both the plain meaning of the statute, as well as the intent of Congress.

Byron R. White:

Was there ever a judgment that the use of secret testimony was illegal?

Thomas G. Saylor, Jr.:

No, Your Honor.

There was a statement of the law by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on that point, saying that the use of the informant testimony by the officials under the facts of this case was violative of Mr. Helms' due process rights.

No judgment, Your Honor; there was a remand at that time to the court of appeals to consider--

Byron R. White:

To the district court?

Thomas G. Saylor, Jr.:

--To the district court, I'm sorry, to consider petitioner's claim of entitlement to immunity based on the statement of the law articulated by the Third Circuit.

It's really the first prong of the two-prong Harlow inquiry.

The court of appeals said what the law is and left it to the district court to determine whether that law was clearly established.

Also, Your Honor, the court of appeals on remand--

Byron R. White:

What if the district court... what did the district court hold on remand?

Thomas G. Saylor, Jr.:

--That the officials were immune.

That was the only issue before the district court on remand.