(CN) - A Christian abortion protester who won his free-speech case against a county sheriff in South Carolina deserves attorneys' fees, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Steven Lefemine was one of several members of the Columbia Christians for Life who demonstrated on a public sidewalk at the busiest intersection in Greenwood County, S.C., in November 2005. During the demonstration, members of the group held up large signs with graphic images of aborted fetuses.
After passersby who saw the signs complained to the Greenwood County Sheriff's Office, officers instructed the group to take their signs down.
Lefemine filed a suit in October 2008, and U.S. District Judge Henry Herlong Jr. ultimately held that the officers had violated Lefemine's First Amendment rights.
The court's injunction blocked the defendants "from engaging in content-based restrictions on [Lefemine's] display of graphic signs without narrowly tailoring [the] restriction to serve a compelling state interest."
Despite awarding the plaintiff almost all the relief he sought, however, Judge Herlong concluded the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the unconstitutionality of their conduct had not previously been clearly established.
He further held that Lefemine had failed to establish that the Sheriff's Office had a custom or policy of infringing on citizens' First Amendment rights.
Based on these conclusions, the court declined to award Lefemine attorneys' fees. Though a three-judge panel with the 4th Circuit initially affirmed Herlong's ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court found
that Lefemine was indeed a "prevailing party" because the injunction required the defendant officials to change their behavior in a way that directly benefited Lefemine.
On remand the District Court still declined to award Lefemine attorneys' fees because it identified three "special circumstances" that made such relief unjust.
Immunity was one factor, as was the "the absence of a policy or custom of discrimination against abortion protestors by the Greenwood County Sheriff's office, and the limited nature of the injunctive relief."
Reversing that holding Friday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit noted the relief Lefemine obtained was notably broader than the District Court suggested.
"Significantly, Lefemine obtained two of the remedies he sought: an injunction and a declaratory judgment against multiple defendants," Judge James Wynn Jr. wrote for the court. "Additionally, although the District Court characterized the injunction as 'extremely limited[,]' ... it bars Defendants from future restrictions of Lefemine's graphic signs 'without narrowly tailoring [the] restrictions to serve a compelling state interest.'
The appellate court also highlighted the position of the defendants "that, faced with the same circumstances again, the Sheriff's Office would respond 'in exactly the same manner: order the person(s) to stop or face criminal sanctions[.]'"
As such, "the injunction's impact is hardly de minimis," Wynn wrote.
"In sum, Lefemine obtained nearly all of the relief he sought - namely, declaratory and injunctive relief protecting his First Amendment rights,' the decision continues.
The other two circumstances Herlong had cited also do no actually qualify as "special" and therefore do not render a Section 1988 fee award unjust, the Richmond, Va.-based court said.
"Neither this court nor the Supreme Court has ever held that qualified immunity constitutes a special circumstance supporting the denial of Section 1988 attorneys' fees. In fact, the case law suggests quite the opposite," Wynn wrote.
Though the lower court had emphasized the officers' supposed "good faith," the appellate judges noted that they and their sister circuits "have repeatedly rejected good faith as a special circumstance justifying the denial of Section 1988 attorneys' fees."
"We believe that special government immunities that restrict civil rights plaintiffs' recoveries weigh in favor of - and certainly not against -awarding Section 1988 fees. The district court here erred in holding otherwise," Wynn wrote.
As to the absence of a policy or custom of discrimination, the panel found that factor similarly unavailing.
"Neither this court nor the Supreme Court has ever suggested that a plaintiff's inability to bring a viable Monell
claim against a government entity somehow blocks otherwise prevailing civil rights plaintiffs from obtaining their attorneys' fees under Section 1988," Wynn wrote. "And for good reason - because Section 1988 'is not meant as a 'punishment' for 'bad' defendants" but is instead 'meant to compensate civil rights attorneys who bring civil rights cases and win them.'"
Wynn added: "It would turn Section 1988 on its head to suggest that a plaintiff who successfully sues government officials for civil rights violations should be denied attorneys' fees for the profoundly non-'special' circumstance that the entity for whom those officials work could not be held liable under Monell