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U.S. Supreme Court

Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412 (1978)

Christiansburg Garment Co. v.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

No. 76-1383

Argued November 28-29, 1977

Decided January 23, 1978

434 U.S. 412


Two years after a racial discrimination charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been filed against petitioner company, respondent, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), notified the complainant that its conciliation efforts had failed and that she had the right to sue the company, which she did not do. Almost two years later, § 14 of the 1972 amendments to Title VII authorized the EEOC to sue in its own name on charges "pending" with the EEOC on the effective date of the amendments. The EEOC then sued petitioner on complainant's charge, and the District Court granted petitioner's motion for summary judgment on the ground that the charge had not been "pending" at the time of the 1972 amendments. The company then petitioned for the allowance of attorney's fees against the EEOC pursuant to § 706(k) of Title VII, which authorizes a district court, in its discretion, to allow the prevailing party a reasonable attorney's fee. Finding that the EEOC's action in bringing the suit was not "unreasonable or meritless," and that its statutory interpretation of § 14 was not "frivolous," the District Court ruled that an award to petitioner of attorney's fees was not justified. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. Although a prevailing plaintiff in a Title VII proceeding is ordinarily to be awarded attorney's fees by the district court in all but special circumstances, a prevailing defendant is to be awarded such fees only when the court, in the exercise of its discretion, has found that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. Pp. 434 U. S. 415-422.

(a) There are at least two strong equitable considerations favoring an attorney's fee award to a prevailing Title VII plaintiff that are wholly absent in the case of a Title VII defendant, viz., the plaintiff is Congress' chosen instrument to vindicate "a policy that Congress considered of the highest priority," Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, 390 U. S. 400, 390 U. S. 402, and when a district court awards counsel fees to a prevailing plaintiff, it is awarding them against a violator of federal law. Pp. 434 U. S. 418-419.

Page 434 U. S. 413

(b) No statutory provision would have been necessary had an award of attorney's fees to a prevailing defendant been based only on the plaintiff's bad faith in bringing the action, for even under the American common law rule (which ordinarily dos not allow attorney's fees to the prevailing party), such fees can be awarded against a party who has proceeded in bad faith. P. 434 U. S. 419.

2. The District Court properly applied the foregoing standards, and did not abuse its discretion in concluding that an award to petitioner of attorney's fees was not justified. Pp. 434 U. S. 423-424

550 F.2d 949, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined except BLACKMUN, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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