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TEXAS STATE TEACHERS ASSOCIATION ET AL. v. GARLAND INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT ET AL.

decided: March 28, 1989.

TEXAS STATE TEACHERS ASSOCIATION ET AL
v.
GARLAND INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT ET AL.



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

O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Author: O'connor

[ 489 U.S. Page 784]

 JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

We must decide today the proper standard for determining whether a party has "prevailed" in an action brought under certain civil rights statutes such that the party is eligible for an award of attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2641, 42 U. S. C. § 1988. This is an issue which has divided the Courts of Appeals both before and after our decision in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). The Courts of Appeals for the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits require that a party succeed on the "central issue" in the litigation and achieve the "primary relief sought" to be eligible for an award of attorney's fees under § 1988. See, e.g., Simien v. San Antonio, 809 F.2d 255, 258 (CA5 1987); Martin v. Heckler, 773 F.2d 1145, 1149 (CA11 1985) (en banc). Most of the other Federal Courts of Appeals have applied a less demanding standard, requiring only that a party succeed on a significant issue and receive some of the relief sought in the lawsuit to qualify for a fee award. See, e.g., Gingras v. Lloyd, 740 F.2d 210, 212 (CA2 1984); Lampher v. Zagel, 755 F.2d 99, 102 (CA7 1985); Fast v. School Dist. of Ladue, 728 F.2d 1030, 1032-1033 (CA8 1984) (en banc); Lummi Indian Tribe v. Oltman, 720 F.2d 1124, 1125 (CA9 1983); Nephew v. Aurora, 766 F.2d 1464, 1466 (CA10 1985). In this case, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit applied the "central issue" test and concluded that petitioners here were not prevailing parties under § 1988. Because of the conflicting views in the Courts of Appeals, and because of the importance of the definition of the term "prevailing party" to the application of § 1988 and other federal fee shifting statutes, we granted certiorari. 488 U.S. 815 (1988).

[ 489 U.S. Page 785]

     I

On March 31, 1981, petitioners, the Texas State Teachers Association, its local affiliate the Garland Education Association, and several individual members and employees of both organizations brought suit under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 against respondent Garland Independent School District and various school district officials. Petitioners' complaint alleged that the school district's policy of prohibiting communications by or with teachers during the schoolday concerning employee organizations violated petitioners' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. In particular, petitioners focused their attack on the school district's Administrative Regulation 412, which prohibits employee organizations access to school facilities during school hours and proscribes the use of school mail and internal communications systems by employee organizations. The school district's regulations do permit employee organizations to meet with, or recruit, teachers on school premises before or after the schoolday "upon request and approval by the local school principal." Brief for Respondents 4-5.

On cross motions for summary judgment, the District Court rejected petitioners' claims in almost all respects. The court found that under Perry Education Assn. v. Perry Local Educators' Assn., 460 U.S. 37 (1983), the prohibitions on union access to teachers themselves and to internal communication media during school hours were constitutional. App. to Pet. for Cert. 55a-57a. The District Court also rejected petitioners' claim that the school district's policies were unconstitutional in that they prohibited teachers' discussion or promotion of employee organizations among themselves during school hours. Id., at 46a, n. 13. As to teacher discussion of employee organizations, the court found that even if some school officials interpreted the regulations to prohibit such speech, there had been no attempt to enforce such an interpretation. As to teacher-to-teacher speech promoting employee organizations, the court found that the record indicated that the school district did prohibit such speech, but

[ 489 U.S. Page 786]

     concluded that this prohibition was constitutional. Ibid. The District Court did find for petitioners on one issue: it held that the requirement of school principal approval of teacher meetings with union representatives after school hours was unconstitutionally vague in that no guidelines limited the discretion of the principal's decision to grant or deny access to the campus. Id., at 58a. The District Court found that this issue was of "minor significance," since there was no evidence in the record to indicate that school officials had ever denied employee organizations the use of school premises during nonschool hours. Id., at 58a, 60a, n. 26.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. Texas State Teachers Assn. v. Garland Independent School Dist., 777 F.2d 1046 (1985). The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that petitioners' claim that the First Amendment required the school district to allow union representatives access to school facilities during school hours was foreclosed by our decision in Perry. The Court of Appeals affirmed the entry of summary judgment for the school district on this claim. Id., at 1050-1053. The Court of Appeals, however, disagreed with the District Court's analysis of petitioners' claims relating to teacher-to-teacher discussion of employee organizations during the schoolday. It found that the prohibition of teacher speech promoting union activity during school hours was unconstitutional. Id., at 1054. It also found that there was a distinct possibility that the school district would discipline teachers who engaged in any discussion of employee organizations during the schoolday, and that such a policy had a chilling effect on teachers' First Amendment rights. Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the prohibition on teacher use of internal mail and billboard facilities to discuss employee organizations was unconstitutional. The school district allowed teachers to use these facilities for personal messages of all kinds, and the school district had not shown that the discussion of union activity in these

[ 489 U.S. Page 787]

     media would be disruptive of its educative mission. Id., at 1055. As to these claims, the Court of Appeals granted petitioners' motion for summary judgment. Respondents filed an appeal in this Court, and we summarily affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. See Garland ...


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