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ADA Policy Brief Series #17: Supreme Court's Rejection of the "Catalyst Theory" in the Awarding of Attorney's Fees and Litigation Costs

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June 16, 2003


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) contains a provision that explicitly authorizes attorneys’ fees and other costs of litigation; it declares: In any action or administrative proceeding commenced pursuant to this Act, the court or agency, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney’s fee, including litigation expenses, and costs, and the United States shall be liable for the foregoing the same as a private individual.

To be entitled to such fees, a party must be “the prevailing party” in the lawsuit or administrative proceeding. For many years most U.S. courts, in determining eligibility for attorneys’ fees under civil rights laws and other federal statutes, had applied an analysis called the “catalyst theory.”

This policy brief in the National Council on Disability’s Righting the ADA series examines the meaning and effect of the “catalyst theory” and the implications for the enforcement of the ADA caused by the Court’s rejection of the theory.

An official website of the National Council on Disability