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High Court To Decide on Legal Fees

September 26, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to clarify the scope of a federal law that allows some people who successfully sue the government to have legal fees paid.

The justices said they will decide whether someone who files a civil rights lawsuit also can be considered a ``prevailing party,″ entitled to have the government pay his or her lawyer fees, without actually winning the legal case.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va., and widely regarded as the nation’s most politically conservative federal appeals court, ruled in a West Virginia case that lawyer fees are available only when someone obtains ``an enforceable judgment or comparable relief through a consent decree or settlement.″

Other federal appeals courts, however, have ruled that lawyer fees also are available under a ``catalyst theory″ _ when someone’s civil rights lawsuit directly leads the government to change a challenged law or policy.

The Buckhannon Board and Care Home Inc., which runs residential care homes throughout West Virginia for elderly people who require some help in daily living, sued a state agency in 1996 after it failed an inspection.

At the time, West Virginia law required all such homes to house only residents capable of ``self-preservation,″ able to evacuate without help during an emergency.

The company’s lawsuit was joined by several of its clients, including 102-year-old Dorsey Pierce, who at that time had lived in a Buckhannon, W.Va., group residence for four years.

While the lawsuit was pending, the West Virginia Legislature repealed the ``self-preservation″ provision of the challenged state law.

Buckhannon Board and Care Home and other plaintiffs then sought to have the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources pay their lawyer fees.

The case is Buckhannon Board and Care Home Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 99-1848.

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