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The Imprimatur of Buckhannon on the Prevailing-Party Inquiry

By Gill Deford

The Buckhannon Board and Care Home v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources decision in 2001 eliminated the catalyst theory (by which a plaintiff was deemed a prevailing party if the lawsuit caused the defendant to change its policy) and established that a judgment on the merits and a consent decree would confer prevailing-party status. However, much remained unclear about determining when a plaintiff had prevailed. Since then, the federal courts have devoted an extra ordinary amount of time and effort in clarifying this question, with varying results. Understanding how courts have applied the basic Buckhannon concepts and the decision’s applicability in the preliminary-injunction and postjudgment contexts helps plaintiffs’ attorneys resist defendants’ efforts to use Buckhannon to prevent a fee award.

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