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WHITE v. NEW HAMPSHIRE DEPARTMENT EMPLOYMENT SECURITY ET AL.

decided: March 2, 1982.

WHITE
v.
NEW HAMPSHIRE DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SECURITY ET AL.



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

Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Brennan, White, Marshall, Rehnquist, Stevens, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 455.

Author: Powell

[ 455 U.S. Page 446]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case arises from a postjudgment request for an award of attorney's fees under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, 42 U. S. C. § 1988. The question is whether such a request is a "motion to alter or

[ 455 U.S. Page 447]

     amend the judgment," subject to the 10-day timeliness standard of Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.*fn1

I

This litigation began in March 1976, when the petitioner Richard White filed suit against respondent New Hampshire Department of Employment Security (NHDES) and its Commissioner. White claimed that the respondent failed to make timely determinations of certain entitlements to unemployment compensation, thereby violating an applicable provision of the Social Security Act, 42 U. S. C. § 503(a)(1), the Due Process Clause of the Constitution of the United States, and 42 U. S. C. § 1983. Alleging federal jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. § 1343, he sought declaratory and injunctive relief and "such other and further relief as may be equitable and just." App. 15. His complaint did not specifically request attorney's fees.

Following certification of the case as a class action, the District Court granted relief on petitioner's claim under the Social Security Act.*fn2 Pending an appeal by NHDES to the Court of Appeals, however, the parties signed a settlement agreement. The case was then remanded to the District Court, which approved the consent decree and gave judgment accordingly on January 26, 1979.

Five days after the entry of judgment, counsel to White wrote to respondent's counsel, suggesting that they meet to discuss the petitioner's entitlement to attorney's fees as a prevailing party under 42 U. S. C. § 1988. No meeting appears to have been held. On June 7, 1979, approximately

[ 455 U.S. Page 448]

     four and one-half months after the entry of a final judgment, the petitioner White filed a motion in which an award of fees formally was requested.

In a hearing in the District Court, respondent's counsel claimed he had been surprised by petitioner's postjudgment requests for attorney's fees.*fn3 He averred he understood that the consent decree, by its silence on the matter, implicitly had waived any claim to a fee award. White's counsel asserted a different understanding. Apparently determining that the settlement agreement had effected no waiver,*fn4 the District Court granted attorney's fees in the sum of $16,644.40.

Shortly thereafter, respondent moved to vacate the consent decree. It argued, in effect, that it had thought its total liability fixed by the consent decree and that it would not have entered a settlement knowing that further liability might still be established. The District Court denied the motion to vacate.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the District Court's decision to award attorney's fees under § 1988. 629 F.2d 697 (1980). The court held that petitioner's postjudgment motion for attorney's fees constituted a motion to alter or amend the judgment, governed by Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and its 10-day time limit. 629 F.2d, at 699.

In holding as it did, the Court of Appeals recognized that § 1988 provided for the award of attorney's fees "as part of the costs."*fn5 But it ...


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