We filed an amicus brief on behalf of Public Citizen, Inc., Impact Fund, Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center, and Disability Rights California, in this appeal from a complete denial of attorneys’ fees to a class of indigent food stamp recipients who were successful in obtaining an enforceable order requiring the State of Louisiana to take steps to halt the threatened termination of their food stamps. The district court’s decision threatened to impede the use of fee-shifting statutes, particularly by the poor in cases seeking equitable relief, and undermine the incentive Congress created for the enforcement of federal civil rights law by private attorneys general.
We argued that plaintiffs are entitled to fees because they are prevailing parties under the Buckhannon standard, and there are no special circumstances that would justify a denial of fees. Our brief further explained that the district court’s outright denial of fees is counter to the policies underlying fee-shifting in general, and 42 U.S.C. § 1988 in particular, especially in a case brought by indigent litigants seeking only injunctive relief. We also urged to court to find that the “did not contribute” special circumstance has been abrogated because a prevailing party within the meaning of Buckhannon necessarily contributed to the outcome.
The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, finding that plaintiffs were the prevailing parties and that the district court made an error of law in concluding otherwise, and remanded the case to the district court to assess whether special circumstances apply and, if not, to determine the amount of attorneys’ fees. Although the Fifth Circuit did not hold that the “did not contribute” special circumstance has been abrogated, it noted that its precedent requires a defendant arguing special circumstances to make an “extremely strong showing” and that the discretion to deny fees to a prevailing civil rights plaintiff is “extremely narrow.”