No. 22-5969, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 21419
United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit
August 14, 2023
Keywords: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504, preliminary injunction, accommodations, schools, prevailing parties, attorney’s fees, injunctive relief, moot, disability, mask, enforcement, executive order.
In August 2021, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order allowing Shelby County Tennessee grade school students and their families to opt out of a county health department mandate or requirement to wear a face mask. Grade school students with disabilities filed a lawsuit asking for the enforcement of Shelby County’s face mask requirement in schools and opposing Governor Lee’s executive order. The district court granted a preliminary injunction, meaning the court ordered the Governor to end the executive order and awarded attorney’s fees to the students..
The Sixth Circuit United States Court of Appeals ruled that the students or Plaintiffs were “prevailing parties” under 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 1988, 12205, meaning the students won their case and the mask mandate could continue. The court agreed with the preliminary injunction and awarded attorney’s fees to the students.
Facts of the Case
To protect against the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Shelby County Health Department issued a health order, (Amended Health Order No. 24 (AHO No. 24), which said that everyone in K-12 schools must wear a face mask. Ten days later, Governor Bill Lee issued an executive order allowing grade-school students and parents to choose not to comply with the health order in schools. As a result, Shelby County stopped enforcing the face mask mandate in schools and hundreds of students started attending schools with no face coverings.
G.S., S.T., and J.M. (Students) are Shelby County students with disabilities. The students were at an increased risk of death or serious illness if they became sick with COVID-19. They filed a lawsuit, saying the executive order violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. They asked the court to stop the Governor’s executive order with preliminary and permanent injunctions and with a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the choice to not comply with Shelby County’s face mask mandate, and they asked for reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses.
The preliminary injunction was granted by the court, saying the mask mandate could stay in place and prevented enforcement of the executive order that allowed people to opt out of wearing masks. The district court also granted the students’ request for the state of Tennessee to pay their attorney’s fees.
Issues of the Case
- Do the students qualify as “prevailing parties” under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988, 12205, and are they allowed to receive attorney’s fees?
Arguments & Analysis
1. Whether the students qualify as “prevailing parties” under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988,12205 and are allowed to receive attorney’s fees.
The court previously ruled that someone who receives preliminary injunctive relief is not ordinarily considered a prevailing (or winning) party for purposes of attorneys’ fees. However, an exception is made if the injunction significantly changed the legal relationship between the parties. The court says that the change must be both material and sufficiently enduring.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that winning major legal arguments in court is not required to cause a significant or material change in the legal relationship between the parties of a case. The court has ruled in the past that the standard for prevailing is not based on the size of the relief, and a plaintiff wins even if their success is limited. The court said it is minor that the students also asked for permanent relief. The students asked for a preliminary injunction to prevent the enforcement of the executive order and to make Shelby County enforce its mask mandate with no opt-out provisions, which is what they were given.
The Sixth Circuit Court also said that relief is considered sufficiently enduring if it is not cancelled by the court’s final decision in the same case, and the relief is considered the result of the case. The injunction stopped Governor Lee from restricting the students’ access to in-person education during the state-declared health emergency. This relief was not reversed or undone by the court’s final decision in this case.
The Court held that the students qualified for prevailing-party status under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988, 12205 and were entitled to be awarded attorney’s fees. The granting of the preliminary injunction provided relief to the students that was material and sufficiently enduring.
Full Case: G.S. v. Bill Lee, No. 22-5969, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 21419 (6th Cir. Aug. 14, 2023)
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.