In 1975, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of all people involuntarily confined at the Forensic Unit of the Fulton State Hospital in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri against the Missouri Mental Health Commission and officials responsible for the operation of the Forensic Unit. The plaintiffs, represented by the Legal Aid Society of St. Louis, sought injunctive and declaratory relief alleging that (1) the conditions in the Forensic Unit fell below constitutional minimum standards, and (2) that patients were placed in the unit's maximum-security facility, the Marion O. Briggs Building for the Criminally Insane, without due process of law. The plaintiffs also sought compensation for work performed for the institution by patients.
In December 1973, the parties entered into a consent decree which resolved the due process complaint. In August 1974, Missouri began to compensate patients for their labor in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act, 28 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., which led the plaintiffs to drop their wage claims in July 1976. In August 1977, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint in which they delineated six specific aspects of confinement at Fulton State Hospital that violated the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the plaintiffs' allegations addressed (1) the physical environment, which was drably decorated and afforded little visual stimulation and privacy, (2) individualized treatment plans, which were not consistently in place, (3) the right to be placed in the least restrictive environment, which was impaired by long waiting lists for transfer out of the Briggs Building, (4) seclusion and restraint, which were allegedly used punitively in conflict with Missouri policies, (5) restrictive visitation, telephone and mail policies, which effectively isolated patients from their friends and families and denied them access to attorneys, and (6) staff numbers and qualifications, which were insufficient to deliver therapeutic services.
On August 11, 1979, the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri (Judge Elmo B. Hunter) ordered improvements in all areas except staff ratios and training. Eckerhart v. Hensley, 475 F. Supp. 908 (W.D. Mo. 1979). Although the court noted that employing a greater number of qualified staff would benefit patients in the Forensic Unit, the court held that the facility's poor staff-to-patient ratios did not reach to the level of a constitutional violation because therapeutic treatment was still possible. However, the court held that the right to therapeutic treatment and constitutional minimums were not met by (1) the drab physical environment, (2) the exceptional delay between new patient intake and development of an individualized plan, (3) long waiting lists for transferring out of the Briggs Building, (4) disciplining patients with physical restraints and seclusion in contravention of state policy, and (5) rigid visitation, telephone, and mail restrictions.
On January 23, 1981, the court deemed the plaintiffs to be the prevailing party, despite the fact that some of their claims were unsuccessful, and granted the plaintiffs attorney's fees and costs. On September 28, 1981, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's award. Eckerhart v. Hensley, 664 F.2d 294 (8th Cir. 1981). The defendants appealed and, on March 1, 1982, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 455 U.S. 988 (1982).
On May 16, 1983, the Supreme Court (Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr.) vacated the ruling and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with the judgment. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). The Court held that the prevailing party was entitled to an award of attorney's fees proportionate to the relief granted for successful claims. Thus, attorney's fees should be reduced when a party engages in litigation that is not entirely successful. Justice Warren E. Burger concurred, construing the majority opinion as requiring a detailed accounting of time spent on litigation when attorney's fees are sought under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. in dissent argued that the district court's award was consistent with the intent and purpose of 42 U.S.C. § 1988, specifically to encourage enforcement of civil rights legislation. The dissent also argued that vacating the award was unnecessary because the majority's analysis would produce the same award amount. The Eighth Circuit vacated the district court's judgment on June 30, 1983. Eckerhart v. Hensley, 716 F.2d 909 (8th Cir. 1983). The case now appears closed.Elizabeth Chilcoat - 06/29/2006
Nick Kabat - 10/28/2014