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Federal Court Allows Victims of Civil Rights Violations to Recover Attorneys' Fees

A federal appeals court ruled that victims of disability discrimination can recover their costs of litigation.


Home and community- based care allows people to stay in the places they call home and remain integrated in their communities; it also costs a fraction of institutional care. Eleven years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) imposed a high duty on sStates to consider home and community- based care applications from eligible Medicaid recipients.  

In 2007, individuals with brain injuries denied home and community- based care sued the State of Massachusetts. Ultimately, the class action lawsuit resulted in a settlement, and in 2008 the parties presented to the court a settlement agreement that required the state to expand community services for Medicaid-eligible individuals with brain injuries, and to develop new projects and programs subject to funding from the state legislature and approvals from the federal government (Medicaid is a state-federal partnership).  If funding or federal approvals fell short, either side was able to move to vacate the settlement so that the case could return to court. Given the uncertainty of both funding and federal approval, parties required continuing oversight by the court and ultimately the court issued an order approving the agreement but not closing the case —– a somewhat unusual resolution, procedurally.

The question then turned to whether plaintiffs had "prevailed" in the lawsuit. Civil rights statutes —– including the ADA —– award prevailing plaintiffs their attorneys' fees. This is in contrast to the usual course of litigation, whereby each bears its own costs. The intent of "fee shifting" is to encourage civil rights victims to enforce their rights, enable them to attract competent legal help, and send a strong deterrent message to potential violators.

Plaintiffs in Massachusetts sought to recover attorneys' fees. The sState argued this was inappropriate because the plaintiffs had not "prevailed" (the case remaining open), and alternatively argued that if an award was deemed appropriate, the levels of compensation were too high. A federal appeals court found in favor of the plaintiffs, ruling that "the Agreement, though structured as a court-approved settlement rather than as a formal consent decree, bears a sufficient imprimatur to qualify the plaintiffs as prevailing parties. That qualification … renders them eligible for an award of attorneys fees." The court also found the fee awards timely and reasonable.

What's at Stake

Attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation filed AARP's "friend of the court" brief because the case implicated two matters of importance to older people: Availability of home and community- based care, and enforcement of civil rights laws that protect older people and people with disabilities. The Olmstead decision 11 years ago, in which AARP participated, was a watershed — clearly delineating the obligations of sStates when faced with people who did not want to be and did not need to be institutionalized. Without vigorous enforcement, those rights mean nothing.

Case Status

Hutchinson v. Patrick was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.