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INDEPENDENT FEDERATION FLIGHT ATTENDANTS v. ZIPES ET AL.

decided: June 22, 1989.

INDEPENDENT FEDERATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS
v.
ZIPES ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, O'Connor, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 766. Marshall, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan, J., joined, post, p. 770. Stevens, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Author: Scalia

[ 491 U.S. Page 755]

 JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 706(k) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(k), provides in relevant part that a "court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the [Equal Employment Opportunity] Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." In this case we must determine under what circumstances § 706(k) permits a court to award attorney's fees against intervenors who have not been found to have violated the Civil Rights Act or any other federal law.

I

This controversy began in 1970 when respondents, female flight attendants of Trans World Airlines, brought this class action against TWA claiming that its policy of terminating flight attendants who became mothers constituted sex discrimination that violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e et seq. Respondents were represented by petitioner's predecessor union, the Air Line Stewards

[ 491 U.S. Page 756]

     and Stewardesses Association (ALSSA). Soon after the suit was filed, TWA abandoned the challenged policy and entered into a settlement agreement with ALSSA. This agreement was approved by the District Court, but class members dissatisfied with certain of its terms appealed. Discerning a potential conflict between ALSSA's obligations to respondents and its obligations to incumbent flight attendants, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's judgment and ordered that ALSSA be replaced as the representative of respondents' class. Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Assn., Local 550, TWU, AFL-CIO v. American Air Lines, Inc., 490 F.2d 636, 643 (CA7 1973). On remand the District Court granted summary judgment to respondents on the merits. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's determination that TWA's policy violated Title VII. In re Consolidated Pretrial Proceedings in Airline Cases, 582 F.2d 1142, 1144 (CA7 1978). However, holding that the timely filing of charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit in federal court, the court went on to find that over 90% of the respondents' claims were on that ground jurisdictionally barred. Id., at 1149-1150. Both parties filed petitions for certiorari; at their request we deferred consideration of the petitions pending the outcome of ongoing settlement negotiations. Sub nom. Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 442 U.S. 916 (1979). The parties again reached a settlement, in which TWA agreed to establish a $3 million fund to benefit all class members and to credit class members with full company and union "competitive" seniority from the date of termination.*fn1

[ 491 U.S. Page 757]

     At this point petitioner, which had replaced ALSSA as the collective-bargaining agent for TWA's flight attendants, sought permission to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of incumbent flight attendants not affected by the challenged TWA policy and flight attendants hired since TWA's termination of respondents' employment. Petitioner objected to the proposed settlement on two grounds: first, that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to approve equitable relief for the time-barred respondents (designated by the District Court as "Subclass B"); second, that reinstatement of respondents with full retroactive "competitive" seniority would violate the collective-bargaining agreement between petitioner's members and TWA. The District Court permitted petitioner's intervention but rejected its objections, approving the settlement in all respects. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Assn., Local 550 v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 630 F.2d 1164 (CA7 1980). Petitioner then filed a petition for certiorari, raising essentially the same objections to the settlement agreement that it had pressed in the two lower courts. This Court granted the petition and consolidated it with the earlier petition filed by respondents, consideration of which had been deferred. In Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 393 (1982), we agreed with respondents that the timeliness requirement of Title VII, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(c), was not jurisdictional and thus that the District Court had jurisdiction to approve the settlement even as to members of Subclass B. We also rejected petitioner's second challenge to the settlement agreement, concluding that reinstatement of all respondents with full competitive seniority was a remedy authorized by Title VII and appropriate in the circumstances of the case. 455 U.S., at 398-400.

To come, finally, to the aspect of this lengthy litigation giving rise to the issues now before us: Respondents' attorneys petitioned the District Court for an award of attorney's fees against petitioner under § 706(k) of the Civil Rights Act

[ 491 U.S. Page 758]

     of 1964, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(k). The District Court held that "[u]nsuccessful Title VII union intervenors are, like unsuccessful Title VII defendants, consistently held responsible for attorneys' fees," Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Assn., Local 550, TWU, AFL-CIO v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 640 F. Supp. 861, 867 (ND Ill. 1986), and thus awarded respondents a total of $180,915.84 in fees against petitioner -- in addition to approximately $1.25 million it had earlier awarded against TWA from the settlement fund. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed. Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 846 F.2d 434 (1988). We granted the union's petition for certiorari, 488 U.S. 1029 (1989).

II

In Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240 (1975), this Court reaffirmed what has come to be known as the "American Rule." Put simply, "[i]n the United States, the prevailing litigant is ordinarily not entitled to collect a reasonable attorneys' fee from the loser." Id., at 247. At issue in this case is one of the congressionally created exceptions to that rule. As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub. L. 88-352, Tit. VII, 78 Stat. 253, Congress enacted § 706(k), 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(k), which provides that a federal district court "in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the [EEOC] or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee." Although the text of the provision does not specify any limits upon the district courts' discretion to allow or disallow fees, in a system of laws discretion is rarely without limits. In the case of § 706(k) and other federal fee-shifting statutes,*fn2 just as in the case of

[ 491 U.S. Page 759]

     discretion regarding appropriate remedies, we have found limits in "the large objectives" of the relevant Act, Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405, 416 (1975), which embrace certain "equitable considerations," Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 418 (1978). Thus, in Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402 (1968), we held that under § 204(b) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. § 2000a-3 (b), a prevailing plaintiff should "ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." We thought this constraint on district court discretion necessary to carry out Congress' intention that individuals injured by racial discrimination act as "'private attorney[s] general,' vindicating a policy that Congress considered of the highest priority." 390 U.S., at 402. See also Albemarle Paper Co., supra, at 415 (applying the Newman standard to § 706(k)); Northcross v. Memphis Bd. of Education, 412 U.S. 427, 428 (1973) (applying the Newman standard to § 718 of the Emergency School Aid Act, 20 U. S. C. § 1617).

Similarly, in Christiansburg Garment, supra, we held that even though the term "prevailing party" in § 706(k) does not distinguish between plaintiffs and defendants, the principle of Newman would not be applied to a prevailing defendant. Unlike the Title VII plaintiff, we reasoned, the Title VII defendant is not "'the chosen instrument of Congress,'" 434 U.S., at 418, quoting Newman, supra, at 402; and unlike the losing defendant, the losing plaintiff is not "a violator of federal law," 434 U.S., at 418. We also rejected, however, the losing plaintiff's argument that sound exercise of § 706(k) discretion would remand the prevailing defendant to the American Rule, providing attorney's fees only if the plaintiff's suit was brought in bad faith. Such an unequal disposition,

[ 491 U.S. Page 760]

     we thought, "giving the private plaintiff substantial incentives to sue, while foreclosing to the defendant the possibility of recovering his expenses in resisting even a groundless action unless he can show that it was brought in bad faith," would so "distort" the "fair adversary process" that Congress could not lightly be assumed to have intended it. Id., at 419. We thus concluded that the prevailing defendant could be awarded fees under § 706(k) against the plaintiff whose suit was brought in good faith, but only "upon a finding that the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation," id., at 421.

The dissent contends that construing § 706(k) in such fashion as to allow competing rights and equities to be taken into account "ignore[s] its express language," post, at 771, in two ways: first, because "the only party mentioned in § 706(k) is 'the prevailing party,'" and thus, "when a district court decides whether to award fees, it must be guided first and foremost by the interests of the prevailing party," ibid. This seems to us something less than an "express language" argument -- and also a non sequitur. To say that only the prevailing party gets fees is not to say that the prevailing party's interests are always first and foremost in determining whether he gets them. In any case, as discussed above, we decided long ago that in some circumstances the interests of the losing party trump those of the prevailing party under § 706(k), so that the latter cannot obtain fees. See Christiansburg Garment, supra. The second respect in which the dissent contends we ignore the "express language" of the statute is that we fail to give effect to its "hostility to categorical rules for the award of attorney's fees," post, at 771, supposedly enshrined in the language that the court "in its discretion, may allow" (emphasis added) a reasonable attorney's fee. We have already described how the law in general, and the law applied to § 706(k) in particular, does not interpret a grant of discretion to eliminate all "categorical

[ 491 U.S. Page 761]

     rules."*fn3 In Newman, supra, at 402, we held that in absence of special circumstances a district court not merely "may" but must award fees to the prevailing plaintiff; and in Christiansburg Garment, supra, at 421, we held that unless the plaintiff's action is frivolous a district court cannot award fees to the prevailing Title VII defendant. The prescriptions in those cases are no less "categorical" than the rule we set forth today.

Proceeding, then, to interpret the statute in light of the competing equities that Congress normally takes into account, we conclude that district courts should similarly award Title VII attorney's fees against losing intervenors only where the intervenors' action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. It is of course true that the central purpose of § 706(k) is to vindicate the national policy against wrongful discrimination by encouraging victims to make the wrongdoers pay at law -- assuring that the incentive to such suits will not be reduced by the prospect of attorney's fees that consume the recovery. See Newman, supra, at 401-402. Assessing fees against blameless intervenors, however, is not essential to that purpose. In every lawsuit in which there is a prevailing Title VII plaintiff there will also be a losing defendant who has committed a legal wrong. That defendant will, under Newman, be liable for all of the fees expended by the plaintiff in litigating the claim against him, and that liability alone creates a substantial added incentive for victims of Title VII violations to sue. In the present case, for example, TWA paid over $1.25 million in fees to respondents' attorneys. Respondents argue that this incentive will be reduced by the potential presence of intervenors

[ 491 U.S. Page 762]

     whose claims the plaintiff must litigate without prospect of fee compensation. It is not clear to us that that consequence will follow. Our decision in Martin v. Wilks, 490 U.S. 755, 762-763 (1989), establishes that a party affected by the decree in a Title VII case need not intervene but may attack the decree collaterally -- in which suit the original Title VII plaintiff defending the decree would have no basis for claiming attorney's fees. Thus, even if we held that fees could routinely be recovered against losing intervenors, Title VII plaintiffs would still face the prospect of litigation without compensation for attorney's fees before the fruits of their victory can be secure.

But even if the inability generally to recover fees against intervenors did create some marginal disincentive against Title VII suits, we would still have to weigh that against other considerations, as we did in Christiansburg Garment. Foremost among these is the fact that, in contrast to losing Title VII defendants who are held presumptively liable for attorney's fees, losing intervenors like petitioner have not been found to have violated anyone's civil rights. See Christiansburg Garment, 434 U.S., at 418. In this case, for example, petitioner became a party to the lawsuit not because it bore any responsibility for the practice alleged to have violated Title VII, but because it sought to protect the bargained-for seniority rights of its employees. Awarding attorney's fees against such an intervenor would further neither the general policy that wrongdoers make whole those whom they have injured nor Title VII's aim of deterring employers from engaging in discriminatory practices.

Our cases have emphasized the crucial connection between liability for violation of federal law and liability for attorney's fees under federal fee-shifting statutes. In Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985), the plaintiffs had brought suit under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 against police officers in their individual capacities, alleging that ...


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