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Kuehl v. Sellner

In this case, private plaintiffs prevailed in a citizen suit under the Endangered Species Act against private defendants and obtained an enforceable order requiring the defendants to transfer endangered species in their possession to a facility capable of meeting the needs of the animals. Despite their success, the district court declined to award attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs. On behalf of Public Citizen, we filed an amicus brief explaining that the plaintiffs were entitled to a fee award because they were prevailing parties and no special circumstances justified a denial of fees. The amicus brief further explains that the  district court’s denial of fees runs counter to the policies underlying fee-shifting statutes, especially in a case brought under the Endangered Species Act citizen-suit provision.

On April 11, 2018, the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion affirming the decision of the district court. With respect to the district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees, the Court noted that absent compelling circumstances, a plaintiff who acts as a private attorney general in seeking to vindicate Congressional policy should ordinarily recover attorneys’ fees. The Court found, however, that special circumstances justified the denial of fees in this case because plaintiffs had argued that defendants’ lack of resources caused the violation of the Endangered Species Act, an award of the attorneys’ fees requested would have forced closure of the defendants’ zoo, and the fee-shifting provision of the Act was not intended to be used for such purposes.