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U.S. Supreme Court

Bradley v. School Bd. of Richmond, 416 U.S. 696 (1974)

Bradley v. School Board of the City of Richmond

No. 72-1322

Argued December 5, 1973

Decided May 15, 1974

416 U.S. 696


The District Court on May 26, 1971, awarded to the successful plaintiff petitioners, Negro parents and guardians, in this protracted litigation involving the desegregation of the Richmond, Virginia, public schools, expenses and attorneys' fees for services rendered from March 10, 1970, to January 29, 1971. On March 10, 1970, petitioners had moved in the District Court for additional relief under Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U. S. 430, in which this Court held that a freedom of choice plan (like the one previously approved for the Richmond schools) was not acceptable where methods promising speedier and more effective conversion to a unitary school system were reasonably available. Respondent School Board then conceded that the plan under which it had been operating was not constitutional. After considering a series of alternative and interim plans, the District Court on April 5, 1971, approved the Board's third proposed plan, and the order allowing fees followed shortly thereafter. Noting the absence of any explicit statutory authorization for such an award in this type of case, the court predicated its ruling on the grounds (1) that actions taken and defenses made by the School Board during the relevant period resulted in an unreasonable delay in desegregation of the schools, causing petitioners to incur substantial expenditures to secure their constitutional rights, and (2) that plaintiffs in actions of this kind were acting as "private attorneys general," Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U. S. 400, 390 U. S. 402, in leading the School Board into compliance with the law, thus effectuating the constitutional guarantees of nondiscrimination. The Court of Appeals reversed, stressing that,

"if such awards are to be made to promote the public policy expressed in legislative action, they should be authorized by Congress, and not by the courts."

Following initial submission of the case to the Court of Appeals, but before its decision, Congress enacted § 718 of the Education Amendments of 1972, which granted a federal court authority to award the prevailing party a chanrobles.com-red

Page 416 U. S. 697

reasonable attorney's fee when appropriate upon entry of a final order in a school desegregation case, the applicability of which to this and other litigation the court then considered. In the other cases, the court held that § 718 did not apply to services rendered prior to July 1, 1972, the effective date of § 718, and, in this case, reasoned that there were no orders pending or appealable on either May 26, 1971, when the District Court made its fee award, or on July 1, 1972, and that, therefore, § 718 could not be used to sustain the award.

Held: Section 718 can be applied to attorneys' services that were rendered before that provision was enacted in a situation, like the one here involved, where the propriety of the fee award was pending resolution on appeal when the statute became law. Pp. 416 U. S. 710-724.

(a) An appellate court must apply the law in effect at the time it renders its decision, Thorpe v. Housing Authority of the City of Durham, 393 U. S. 268, 393 U. S. 281, unless such application would work a manifest injustice or there is statutory direction or legislative history to the contrary. Pp. 416 U. S. 711-716.

(b) Such injustice could result "in mere private cases between individuals," 5 U. S. 110, the determinative factors being the nature and identity of the parties, the nature of their rights, and the nature of the impact of the change in law upon those rights. Upon consideration of those aspects here (see [email protected], (c)-(e)), it cannot be said that the application of the statute would cause injustice. Pp. 416 U. S. 716-721.

(c) There was a disparity in the respective abilities of the parties to protect themselves, and the litigation did not involve merely private interests. Petitioners rendered substantial service to the community and to the Board itself by bringing it into compliance with its constitutional mandate, and thus acting as a "private attorney general" in vindicating public policy. Pp. 416 U. S. 718-719.

(d) Application of § 718 does not affect any matured or unconditional rights, the School Board having no unconditional right to the funds allocated to it by the taxpayers. P. 416 U. S. 720.

(e) No increased burden was imposed, since the statute did not alter the Board's constitutional responsibility for providing pupils with a nondiscriminatory education, and there is no change in the substantive obligation of the parties. Pp. 416 U. S. 720-721.

(f) The Court of Appeals erred in concluding that § 718 was inapplicable to the petitioners' request for fees because there was no final order pending unresolved on appeal, since the language of § 718 is not to be read to mean that a fee award must be made chanrobles.com-red

Page 416 U. S. 698

simultaneously with the entry of a desegregation order, and a district court must have discretion in a school desegregation case to award fees and costs incident to the final disposition of interim matters. Pp. 416 U. S. 721-723.

(g) Since the District Court made an allowance for services to January 29, 1971, when petitioners were not yet the "prevailing party" within the meaning of § 718, the fee award should be recomputed to April 5, 1971, or thereafter. Pp. 416 U. S. 723-724.

472 F.2d 318, vacated and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J. delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Members joined except MARSHALL and POWELL, JJ., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


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