The Idaho Supreme Court recently made clear that its authority to award attorney fees under a federal statute is not constrained by United States Supreme Court precedent. In James v. City of Boise, 2015 Opinion No. 49 (May 21, 2015), the Court affirmed the judgment of the district court dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint seeking to recover damages resulting from being bitten by a police dog when she was mistaken for a burglar. The defendants sought attorney fees under two provisions of the Idaho Code and under 42 U.S.C. section 1988.
42 U.S.C. section 1988 is a federal statute that authorizes courts to award attorney fees to a prevailing party in certain civil rights cases. The statute provides, in pertinent part, that “the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney’s fee as part of the costs . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The United States Supreme Court has limited the discretion of federal district courts to award attorney fees only to a prevailing defendant (as opposed to a prevailing plaintiff) if the plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.
The Idaho Supreme Court, however, made clear that it was not bound by that limitation. It explained in James: “Although the [United States] Supreme Court may have the authority to limit the discretion of lower federal courts, it does not have the authority to limit the discretion of state courts where such limitation is not contained in the statute. Therefore, in cases filed in the Idaho state courts seeking to recover under 42 U.S.C. section 1988, the court has discretion in deciding to award attorney fees to the prevailing party, whether the prevailing party is the plaintiff or the defendant.” James, slip op. at 30. It then awarded attorney fees to the defendants on the plaintiff’s section 1983 claim because “[i]t was clear that her claim would be barred by qualified immunity under the clearly established law of the ninth circuit . . . .” Id. at 30-31. It did not find, as a predicate, that the plaintiff’s section 1983 claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.