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KENTUCKY V. GRAHAM, 473 U. S. 159 (1985)

U.S. Supreme Court

Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985)

Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985)

No. 84-849

Argued April 16, 1985

Decided June 28, 1985

473 U.S. 159


Respondents were arrested following the warrantless raid of a house in Kentucky by local and state police officers who were seeking a murder suspect. Claiming a deprivation of federal rights allegedly resulting from the police's use of excessive force and other constitutional violations accompanying the raid, respondents filed suit in Federal District Court under, inter alia, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking money damages. Among the named defendants were the Commissioner of the Kentucky State Police, "individually and as Commissioner," and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which was sued only for attorney's fees should respondents eventually prevail. The District Court, relying on the Eleventh Amendment, dismissed the Commonwealth as a party. On the second day of trial, the case was settled in favor of respondents, who then moved that the Commonwealth pay their costs and attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which provides that, in any action to enforce § 1983, the court may allow "the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." The District Court granted the motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 1988 does not allow attorney's fees to be recovered from a governmental entity when a plaintiff sues governmental employees only in their personal capacities and prevails; accordingly, since this case was necessarily litigated as a personal-capacity and not as an official-capacity action, it was error to award fees against the Commonwealth. Pp. 473 U. S. 163-171.

(a) While § 1988 does not define the parties who must bear the costs, the logical place to look for recovery of fees is to the losing party. Liability on the merits and responsibility for fees go hand in hand. Where a defendant has not been prevailed against, either because of legal immunity or on the merits, § 1988 does not authorize a fee award against that defendant. Pp. 473 U. S. 163-165.

(b) Personal-capacity suits seek to impose personal liability upon a government officer for actions he takes under color of state law, whereas official-capacity suits against an officer are generally treated as suits against the governmental entity of which the officer is an agent. With this distinction in mind, it is clear that a suit against a government officer

Page 473 U. S. 160

in his or her personal capacity cannot lead to imposition of fee liability upon the governmental entity. Pp. 473 U. S. 165-168.

(c) To hold that fees can be recovered from a governmental entity following victory in a personal-capacity action against government officials would be inconsistent with the rule that the entity cannot be made liable on the merits under § 1983 on a respondeat superior basis. Nothing in § 1988's history suggests that fee liability was intended to be imposed on that basis. Section 198 simply does not create fee liability where merits liability is nonexistent. P. 473 U. S. 168.

(d) Although the State Police Commissioner was named as a defendant in both his "individual" and "official" capacities and the Commonwealth was named as a defendant for the limited purpose of a fee award, there can be no doubt, given Eleventh Amendment doctrine, that the action did not seek to impose monetary liability on the Commonwealth. Absent waiver by a State or valid congressional override, the Eleventh Amendment bars a damages action against a State in federal court, a bar that remains in effect when state officials are sued for damages in their official capacity. Accordingly, an official-capacity damages action could not have been maintained against the Commissioner in federal court. Respondents cannot seek damages from the Commonwealth simply by suing Commonwealth officials in their official capacity, nor did respondents' action on the merits become a suit against the Commonwealth by simply naming it as a defendant on the limited issue of fee liability. Pp. 473 U. S. 168-170.

(e) Hutto v. Finney, 437 U. S. 678, did not alter the basic philosophy of § 1988 that fees and merits liability run together, nor did it hold or suggest that fees are available from a governmental entity simply because a government official has been prevailed against in his or her personal capacity. Pp. 473 U. S. 170-171.

742 F.2d 1455, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 473 U. S. 161

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