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U.S. Supreme Court

White v. New Hampshire Dept. of Empl. Sec., 455 U.S. 445 (1982)

White v. New Hampshire Department of Employment Security

No. 80-5887

Argued November 30, 1981

Decided March 2, 1982

455 U.S. 445


Petitioner filed an action in Federal District Court alleging that respondent New Hampshire Department of Employment Security failed to make timely determinations of certain entitlements to unemployment compensation, thereby violating a provision of the Social Security Act, the Due Process Clause, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Ultimately, the District Court approved the parties' consent decree and entered judgment accordingly. Approximately four and one-half months after the entry of the judgment, petitioner filed a motion requesting an award of attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which authorizes the award, in the court's discretion, of attorney's fees to the prevailing party "as part of the costs" in constitutional and civil rights litigation of various kinds. The District Court granted attorney's fees and denied respondents' subsequent motion to vacate the consent decree. The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's decision to award attorney's fees under § 1988. It held that petitioner's motion for attorney's fees constituted a "motion to alter or amend the judgment" under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) and was governed by the Rule's requirement that such a motion be served not later than 10 days after entry of the judgment.

Held: Rule 59(e) is not applicable to postjudgment request for attorney's fees under § 1988. Pp. 455 U. S. 450-454.

(a) The Rule has generally been invoked only to support reconsideration of matters properly encompassed in a decision on the merits. Since § 1988 provides for awards of attorney's fees only to a "prevailing party," the decision of entitlement to fees requires an inquiry separate from the decision on the merits -- an inquiry that cannot even commence until one party has "prevailed." Nor can attorney's fees fairly be characterized as an element of "relief" indistinguishable from other elements. Pp. 455 U. S. 451-452.

(b) Application of Rule 59(e) to § 1988 fee requests is neither necessary nor desirable to promote finality, judicial economy, or fairness. Many orders may issue in the course of a civil rights action, but it may be

Page 455 U. S. 446

unclear which orders are and which are not "final judgments." If Rule 59(e) were applicable, lawyers predictably would respond by entering fee motions in conjunction with nearly every interim ruling. No useful purpose would be served by encouragement of this practice, or by litigation over the "finality" of interim orders in connection with which fee requests were not filed within the 10-day period. The Rule's 10-day limit could also deprive counsel of the time necessary to negotiate private settlements of fee questions, thus generating increased litigation of fee questions. The discretion conferred on the court by § 1988 with regard to the award of attorney's fees will support a denial of fees in cases in which a postjudgment motion unfairly surprises or prejudices the affected party. Pp. 455 U. S. 452-454.

629 F.2d 697, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 455 U. S. 455.

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