Vanderbilt Law Review


Tim K. Garrett

First Page



Congress enacted the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Act (Fees Act)" to promote more vigorous enforcement of the civil rights laws by attracting competent legal counsel to represent civil rights plaintiffs. To achieve this goal the Fees Act allows courts to award attorney's fees to prevailing plaintiffs in civil rights cases.' The statute, however, entails an inherent tension: the Fees Act's primary aim of compensating prevailing plaintiffs' attorneys "'for all time reasonably expended on a matter' ,, conflicts with the desire to prevent windfalls to attorneys. This conflict is especially keen when a civil rights plaintiff only partially prevails," because the court then must determine whether a fees award should compensate for time spent on unsuccessful claims.

Courts initially addressing this issue developed three distinct standards. One line of cases held that attorneys should be compensated only for time spent pursuing successful claims. Another group of courts held that attorneys should be compensated for time expended on all nonfrivolous claims, regardless of whether the claims were successful at trial. A third approach required courts to consider the relationship between the unsuccessful claims and the success achieved, and to reduce the fees award only when unsuccessful claims were truly distinct from the successful claim or claims." In Hensley v. Eckerhart the United State Supreme Court had the opportunity to resolve this dispute and to establish a standard for determining the fees award when a plaintiff prevails only partially." The Court held that the proper determination of the fees award requires a court to examine the relationship be-tween successful and unsuccessful claims. The award should compensate for unsuccessful claims only if they share a "common core of facts or . ..related legal theories" with the successful claim. Furthermore, the court should focus on the overall success achieved and grant an award that is reasonable in relation to the results obtained.