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KENTUCKY v. GRAHAM ET AL.

decided: June 28, 1985.

KENTUCKY, DBA BUREAU OF STATE POLICE
v.
GRAHAM ET AL.



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

Marshall, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Author: Marshall

[ 473 U.S. Page 161]

 JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether 42 U. S. C. § 1988 allows attorney's fees to be recovered from a governmental entity when a plaintiff sues governmental employees only in their personal capacities and prevails.

I

On November 7, 1979, a Kentucky state trooper was murdered. Suspicion quickly focused on Clyde Graham, whose stepmother's car was found near the site of the slaying and whose driver's license and billfold were discovered in nearby bushes. That evening, 30 to 40 city, county, and state police officers converged on the house of Graham's father in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Without a warrant, the police entered the home twice and eventually arrested all the occupants, who are the six respondents here. Graham was not among them.*fn1 According to respondents, they were severely beaten, terrorized, illegally searched, and falsely arrested. Kenneth Brandenburgh, the Commissioner of the State Police and the highest ranking law enforcement officer in Kentucky, allegedly was directly involved in carrying out at least one of the raids. An investigation by the Kentucky Attorney General's office later concluded that the police had used excessive force and that a "complete breakdown" in police discipline had created an "uncontrolled" situation. App. to Brief for Respondents 21-22.

Alleging a deprivation of a number of federal rights, respondents filed suit in Federal District Court.*fn2 Their complaint

[ 473 U.S. Page 162]

     sought only money damages and named as defendants various local and state law enforcement officers, the city of Elizabethtown, and Hardin County, Kentucky. Also made defendants were Commissioner Brandenburgh, "individually and as Commissioner of the Bureau of State Police," and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The Commonwealth was sued, not for damages on the merits, but only for attorney's fees should the plaintiffs eventually prevail.*fn3 Shortly after the complaint was filed, the District Court, relying on the Eleventh Amendment, dismissed the Commonwealth as a party. Based on its Attorney General's report, the Commonwealth refused to defend any of the individual defendants, including Commissioner Brandenburgh, or to pay their litigation expenses.

On the second day of trial, the case was settled for $60,000.*fn4 The settlement agreement, embodied in a court order dismissing the case, barred respondents from seeking attorney's fees from any of the individual defendants but specifically preserved respondents' right to seek fees and court costs from the Commonwealth. Respondents then moved, pursuant to 42 U. S. C. § 1988, that the Commonwealth pay their costs and attorney's fees. At a hearing on this motion, the Commonwealth argued that the fee request had to be

[ 473 U.S. Page 163]

     denied as a matter of law, both because the Commonwealth had been dismissed as a party and because the Eleventh Amendment, in any event, barred such an award. Rejecting these arguments, the District Court ordered the Commonwealth to pay $58,521 in fees and more than $6,000 in costs and expenses.*fn5 In a short per curiam opinion relying solely on this Court's decision in Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978), the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. Graham v. Wilson, 742 F.2d 1455 (1984).

We granted certiorari to address the proposition, rejected by at least two Courts of Appeals,*fn6 that fees can be recovered from a governmental entity when a plaintiff prevails in a suit against government employees in their personal capacities. 469 U.S. 1156 (1985). We now reverse.

II

This case requires us to unravel once again the distinctions between personal- and official-capacity suits, see Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464 (1985), this time in the context of fee awards under 42 U. S. C. § 1988. The relevant portion of § 1988, enacted as the Civil ...


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