Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.


decided: May 16, 1983.



Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and White, Rehnquist, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Burger, C. J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 440. Brennan, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., joined, post, p. 441.

Author: Powell

[ 461 U.S. Page 426]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title 42 U. S. C. § 1988 provides that in federal civil rights actions "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." The issue in this case is whether a partially prevailing plaintiff may recover an attorney's fee for legal services on unsuccessful claims.



Respondents brought this lawsuit on behalf of all persons involuntarily confined at the Forensic Unit of the Fulton State Hospital in Fulton, Mo. The Forensic Unit consists of two residential buildings for housing patients who are dangerous to themselves or others. Maximum-security patients are housed in the Marion O. Biggs Building for the Criminally Insane. The rest of the patients reside in the less restrictive Rehabilitation Unit.

In 1972 respondents filed a three-count complaint in the District Court for the Western District of Missouri against petitioners, who are officials at the Forensic Unit and members of the Missouri Mental Health Commission. Count I challenged the constitutionality of treatment and conditions at the Forensic Unit. Count II challenged the placement of patients in the Biggs Building without procedural due process. Count III sought compensation for patients who performed institution-maintaining labor.

Count II was resolved by a consent decree in December 1973. Count III largely was mooted in August 1974 when

[ 461 U.S. Page 427]

     petitioners began compensating patients for labor pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U. S. C. § 201 et seq. In April 1975 respondents voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit and filed a new two-count complaint. Count I again related to the constitutionality of treatment and conditions at the Forensic Unit. Count II sought damages, based on the Thirteenth Amendment, for the value of past patient labor. In July 1976 respondents voluntarily dismissed this backpay count. Finally, in August 1977 respondents filed an amended one-count complaint specifying the conditions that allegedly violated their constitutional right to treatment.

In August 1979, following a three-week trial, the District Court held that an involuntarily committed patient has a constitutional right to minimally adequate treatment. 475 F.Supp. 908, 915 (1979). The court then found constitutional violations in five of six general areas: physical environment; individual treatment plans; least restrictive environment; visitation, telephone, and mail privileges; and seclusion and restraint.*fn1 With respect to staffing, the sixth general area,

[ 461 U.S. Page 428]

     the District Court found that the Forensic Unit's staffing levels, which had increased during the litigation, were minimally adequate. Id., at 919-920. Petitioners did not appeal the District Court's decision on the merits.


In February 1980 respondents filed a request for attorney's fees for the period from January 1975 through the end of the litigation. Their four attorneys claimed 2,985 hours worked and sought payment at rates varying from $40 to $65 per hour. This amounted to approximately $150,000. Respondents also requested that the fee be enhanced by 30 to 50 percent, for a total award of somewhere between $195,000 and $225,000. Petitioners opposed the request on numerous grounds, including inclusion of hours spent in pursuit of unsuccessful claims.

The District Court first determined that respondents were prevailing parties under 42 U. S. C. § 1988 even though they had not succeeded on every claim. It then refused to eliminate from the award hours spent on unsuccessful claims:

"[Petitioners'] suggested method of calculating fees is based strictly on a mathematical approach comparing the total number of issues in the case with those actually prevailed upon. Under this method no consideration is given for the relative importance of various issues, the interrelation of the issues, the difficulty in identifying issues, or the extent to which a party may prevail on various issues." No. 75-CV-87-C, p. 7 (WD Mo., Jan. 23, 1981), Record 220.

Finding that respondents "have obtained relief of significant import," id., at 231, the District Court awarded a fee of $133,332.25. This award differed from the fee request in two respects. First, the court reduced the number of hours claimed by one attorney by 30 percent to account for his inexperience

[ 461 U.S. Page 429]

     and failure to keep contemporaneous records. Second, the court declined to adopt an enhancement factor to increase the award.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed on the basis of the District Court's memorandum opinion and order. 664 F.2d 294 (1981). We granted certiorari, 455 U.S. 988 (1982), and now vacate and remand for further proceedings.


In Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240 (1975), this Court reaffirmed the "American Rule" that each party in a lawsuit ordinarily shall bear its own attorney's fees unless there is express statutory authorization to the contrary. In response Congress enacted the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U. S. C. § 1988, authorizing the district courts to award a reasonable attorney's fee to prevailing parties in civil rights litigation. The purpose of § 1988 is to ensure "effective access to the judicial process" for persons with civil rights grievances. H. R. Rep. No. 94-1558, p. 1 (1976). Accordingly, a prevailing plaintiff "'should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust.'" S. Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 4 (1976) (quoting Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402 (1968)).*fn2

The amount of the fee, of course, must be determined on the facts of each case. On this issue the House Report simply refers to 12 factors set forth in Johnson v. Georgia Highway

[ 461 U.S. Page 430]

     the motion was denied. The District Court awarded attorney's fees for time spent pursuing this motion because the plaintiffs "substantially advanced their clients' interests" by obtaining "a significant concession from defendants as a result of their motion." 64 F.R.D., at 684.

In Davis v. County of Los Angeles, 8 E. P. D. para. 9444 (CD Cal. 1974), the plaintiffs won an important judgment requiring the Los Angeles County Fire Department to undertake an affirmative-action program for hiring minorities. In awarding attorney's fees the District Court stated:

"It also is not legally relevant that plaintiffs' counsel expended a certain limited amount of time pursuing certain issues of fact and law that ultimately did not become litigated issues in the case or upon which plaintiffs ultimately did not prevail. Since plaintiffs prevailed on the merits and achieved excellent results for the represented class, plaintiffs' counsel are entitled to an award of fees for all time reasonably expended in pursuit of the ultimate result achieved in the same manner that an attorney traditionally is compensated by a fee-paying client for all time reasonably expended on a matter." Id., at 5049.

Similarly, the District Court in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 66 F.R.D. 483, 484 (WDNC 1975), based its fee award in part on a finding that "[the] results obtained were excellent and constituted the total accomplishment of the aims of the suit," despite the plaintiffs' losses on "certain minor contentions."

In each of these three cases the plaintiffs obtained essentially complete relief. The legislative history, therefore, does not provide a definitive answer as to the proper standard for setting a fee award where the plaintiff has achieved only limited success. Consistent with the legislative history, Courts of Appeals generally have recognized the relevance of the results obtained to the amount of a fee award. They

[ 461 U.S. Page 432]

     have adopted varying standards, however, for applying this principle in cases where the plaintiff did not succeed on all claims asserted.*fn5

In this case petitioners contend that "an award of attorney's fees must be proportioned to be consistent with the extent to which a plaintiff has prevailed, and only time reasonably expended in support of successful claims should be compensated." Brief for Petitioners 24. Respondents agree that a plaintiff's success is relevant, but propose a less stringent standard focusing on "whether the time spent prosecuting [an unsuccessful] claim in any way contributed to the ultimate results achieved." Brief for Respondents 46. Both parties acknowledge the discretion of the district court in this area. We take this opportunity to clarify the proper relationship of the results obtained to an award of attorney's fees.*fn6

[ 461 U.S. Page 433]



A plaintiff must be a "prevailing party" to recover an attorney's fee under § 1988.*fn7 The standard for making this threshold determination has been framed in various ways. A typical formulation is that "plaintiffs may be considered 'prevailing parties' for attorney's fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit." Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-279 (CA1 1978).*fn8 This is a generous formulation that brings the plaintiff only across the statutory threshold. It remains for the district court to determine what fee is "reasonable."

The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. This calculation provides an objective basis on which to make an initial estimate of the value of a lawyer's services. The party seeking an award of fees should submit evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed. Where the documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award accordingly.

[ 461 U.S. Page 434]

     The district court also should exclude from this initial fee calculation hours that were not "reasonably expended." S. Rep. No. 94-1011, p. 6 (1976). Cases may be overstaffed, and the skill and experience of lawyers vary widely. Counsel for the prevailing party should make a good-faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission. "In the private sector, 'billing judgment' is an important component in fee setting. It is no less important here. Hours that are not properly billed to one's client also are not properly billed to one's adversary pursuant to statutory authority." Copeland v. Marshall, 205 U. S. App. D.C. 390, 401, 641 F.2d 880, 891 (1980) (en banc) (emphasis in original).


The product of reasonable hours times a reasonable rate does not end the inquiry. There remain other considerations that may lead the district court to adjust the fee upward or downward, including the important factor of the "results obtained."*fn9 This factor is particularly crucial where a plaintiff is deemed "prevailing" even though he succeeded on only some of his claims for relief. In this situation two questions must be addressed. First, did the plaintiff fail to prevail on claims that were unrelated to the claims on which he succeeded? Second, did the plaintiff achieve a level of success that makes the hours reasonably expended a satisfactory basis for making a fee award?

In some cases a plaintiff may present in one lawsuit distinctly different claims for relief that are based on different facts and legal ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.