Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources

532 U.S. 598 (2001)

Quick Summary

Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. (defendant) challenged West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (plaintiff) over a closure order based on non-compliance with state law. The dispute centered around whether Buckhannon could claim attorney’s fees as a ‘prevailing party’ after their lawsuit led to a voluntary legislative change, without a court judgment or decree.

The United States Supreme Court concluded that Buckhannon did not qualify as a ‘prevailing party’ because there was no court-ordered change in legal status between the parties. The Court’s decision rejected the ‘catalyst theory’ for awarding attorney’s fees under federal statutes.

Facts of the Case

The Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. (defendant) operated assisted living facilities in West Virginia. These facilities failed an inspection due to some residents being incapable of ‘self-preservation’ as required by West Virginia law. Consequently, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (West Virginia) (plaintiff) issued orders to close Buckhannon’s facilities.

In response, Buckhannon sued, claiming that the ‘self-preservation’ requirement violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). While the lawsuit was ongoing, the West Virginia legislature removed the ‘self-preservation’ requirement, prompting West Virginia to argue that the case was moot.

The court agreed and dismissed the case. Buckhannon then sought attorney’s fees, asserting they were the ‘prevailing party’ because their lawsuit led to the legislative change.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Buckhannon filed suit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the State of West Virginia, its agencies, and individuals.
  2. The enforcement of the closure orders was stayed pending litigation.
  3. West Virginia legislature repealed the ‘self-preservation’ requirement during the litigation.
  4. The District Court dismissed the case as moot due to the legislative change.
  5. Buckhannon requested attorney’s fees, claiming to be the ‘prevailing party’ under the ‘catalyst theory.’
  6. The District Court denied the motion for attorney’s fees, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
  7. Buckhannon appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether a party that has not obtained a formal judgment or court-ordered consent decree, but claims to have achieved the desired outcome due to a voluntary change in the defendant’s conduct as a result of the lawsuit, qualifies as a ‘prevailing party’ eligible for attorney’s fees under federal statutes.

Rule of Law

The term ‘prevailing party’ includes those who have been awarded some form of relief by the court, such as an enforceable judgment or a court-ordered consent decree, and does not extend to parties who claim their lawsuit was a catalyst for a voluntary change in the defendant’s conduct without judicial sanction.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court clarified that ‘prevailing party’ is a legal term meaning a party in whose favor a judgment is rendered. The Court emphasized that this term does not include parties who have not secured a court-sanctioned change in the legal relationship between the parties.

The Court rejected the ‘catalyst theory,’ which posits that a plaintiff is a ‘prevailing party’ if their lawsuit results in voluntary change by the defendant, as there is no judicial endorsement of such change. The Court stressed that past decisions only awarded attorney’s fees where there was either a judgment on the merits or a court-ordered consent decree.

Furthermore, it was noted that legislative history suggesting broader interpretations of ‘prevailing party’ did not convincingly indicate an intent to validate the ‘catalyst theory.’ The Court also expressed skepticism about arguments that rejecting the catalyst theory would deter meritorious lawsuits or encourage defendants to avoid fees by changing conduct unilaterally.

It was pointed out that such fears are speculative and that courts rarely find cases moot due to voluntary cessation of challenged practices unless it’s clear that wrongful behavior cannot reasonably be expected to recur.


The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, holding that Buckhannon was not entitled to attorney’s fees as they were not a ‘prevailing party’ under federal fee-shifting statutes.

Concurring Opinions

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred with the majority opinion and elaborated on the historical and traditional understanding of ‘prevailing party.’ He emphasized that policy considerations should not distort the term’s meaning and noted that awarding attorney’s fees based on the catalyst theory could unjustly reward plaintiffs with unproven claims.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, dissented from the majority opinion. They argued for a broader interpretation of ‘prevailing party’ that included plaintiffs whose lawsuits prompted defendants to voluntarily change their conduct, thus achieving the desired result without formal judicial action. They contended that such an interpretation would better serve justice and encourage meritorious litigation.

Key Takeaways

  1. ‘Prevailing party’ is defined as one who has been awarded relief by a court judgment or consent decree.
  2. The catalyst theory does not apply for awarding attorney’s fees under FHAA and ADA federal statutes.
  3. Legislative changes prompted by lawsuits without formal judicial endorsement do not entitle plaintiffs to attorney’s fees as prevailing parties.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What qualifies a party as a 'prevailing party' in the context of attorney's fees?

A party qualifies as a ‘prevailing party’ when they obtain court-enforced relief, such as a judgement on the merits or a consent decree that affects the legal relationship between the parties.

  • For example: If a plaintiff sues for discrimination and the court issues an order prohibiting the defendant from continuing the discriminatory practices, the plaintiff is considered a ‘prevailing party’ eligible for attorney’s fees.

Does a plaintiff's success in prompting legislative change grant them 'prevailing party' status for attorney's fees?

Success in instigating legislative change alone does not make a plaintiff a ‘prevailing party’ for the purpose of attorney’s fees, as there needs to be a judicially recognized alteration in the legal relationship between the parties.

  • For example: If an environmental group’s lawsuit leads to new pollution regulations but there is no court ruling or consent decree, they would not be considered ‘prevailing parties’ entitled to attorney’s fees.

Can voluntary changes in defendant's behavior due to litigation qualify a plaintiff as a 'prevailing party'?

Voluntary changes by the defendant absent of any court order or judgement do not qualify a plaintiff as a ‘prevailing party’, since such changes lack judicial imprimatur.

  • For example: A company voluntarily improves its wheelchair access after being sued for ADA violations but before any court decision; the suing party wouldn’t be automatically eligible for attorney’s fees as they’re not officially deemed ‘prevailing’ without court action.


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