Case Overview

When civil rights plaintiffs sue the government under Section 1983 for violations of their constitutional rights, like suppression of free speech, they often face steep odds stacked against them. Suing the government is expensive and can take years, but many constitutional violations do not result in high-dollar damages that a plaintiff can win. This makes it difficult for civil rights plaintiffs to find attorneys willing to represent them. To fix this problem, Congress passed a law allowing Section 1983 plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees from the government when they win. Importantly, the reverse is not true: Government defendants can recover their attorneys’ fees only when plaintiffs file extremely frivolous, bad faith Section 1983 claims.

But in the Western District of Missouri, a federal court recently flipped that logic on its head. The plaintiffs were employees of a public school district who claimed their First Amendment rights were violated when they were forced to participate in a mandatory “Anti-Racist” diversity, equity, and inclusion training. The court disagreed, granting summary judgment for the school district—and then, in a short opinion with little legal analysis, awarded over $300,000 in attorney’s fees to the school district because it thought the case was too “political” and “trivialized the important work of the federal judiciary.” 

Regardless of the merits of the plaintiffs’ Section 1983 claims, they certainly were not frivolous or brought in bad faith. And the district court’s ruling will have a serious chilling effect on the willingness of civil rights plaintiffs to bring First Amendment challenges, even ones with merit, because the vast majority of them could not afford to cover the government’s legal fees. On May 18, 2023, FIRE joined an amicus curiae brief co-authored by Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom, Defending Freedom Institute, American Civil Liberties Union – Missouri, and Reason Foundation arguing that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit should reverse the district court’s fees ruling and reaffirm that fees are available to Section 1983 defendants only in the most plainly frivolous, bad faith cases.