Preliminary Injunctions Prevail Through the Winter of Buckhannon

Kaitlan Donahue | April 14, 2024

The Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976 allows courts to award attorneys’ fees to the “prevailing party” in any “action or proceeding” enforcing several civil rights-related statutes. Yet, this statute fails to define the term “prevailing party,” leaving the courts to define it over time. The Supreme Court’s piecemeal, vague definitions of “prevailing party” have only complicated the legal landscape and caused more uncertainty for potential plaintiffs and their prospective attorneys. Without the relief offered by recovery of attorneys’ fees, private litigants may be dissuaded from pursuing meritorious litigation due to overwhelming costs of representation, and attorneys may face a choice between accepting or denying an otherwise successful case solely due to a prospective client’s ability to pay. In Sole v. Wyner, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff who is awarded a preliminary injunction is not considered a prevailing party if “the merits of the case are ultimately decided against her.” In deciding Sole, the Court declined to answer a separate but important question: Is a plaintiff a prevailing party if their case is mooted after obtaining a preliminary injunction?

Courts attempting to answer this question struggle to find tangible guidance from the Supreme Court following its decision in Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources, resulting in inconsistencies, overly complicated analyses, and in some cases, misguided rejection of prevailing party status. The legal analysis behind prevailing party status must be streamlined to preserve this critical and necessary litigation. This Note explores how, in the aftermath of Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., a plaintiff whose case is mooted after obtaining a preliminary injunction is a prevailing party within the framework of Buckhannon.