Private Attorney General’s Act – enables private attorneys who bring lawsuits in the public interest to collect attorney’s fees

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   In the United States, a private attorney general is an informal term for a private attorney who brings a lawsuit considered to be in the public interest, i.e., benefiting the general public and not just the plaintiff, on behalf of a citizen or group of citizens. [1] [2]  The attorney may, at the equitable discretion of the court, be entitled to recover attorney’s fees if he or she prevails. The rationale behind this principle is to provide extra incentive to private attorneys to pursue suits that may be of benefit to society at large.  [3]

private-attorney general doctrine:

1. The equitable principle that allows the recovery of attorney’s fees to a party who brings a lawsuit that benefits a significant number of people, requires private enforcement, and is important to society as a whole. [4]

     Many civil rights statutes rely on private attorneys general for their enforcement. In Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises[3] one of the earliest cases construing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “A public accommodations suit is thus private in form only.  When a plaintiff brings an action . . . he cannot recover damages.  If he obtains an injunction, he does so not for himself alone but also as a ‘private attorney general.” 

Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400 (1968) – one who succeeds in obtaining an injunction under Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should ordinarily recover an attorney’s fee under § 204(b).

     The United States Congress has also passed laws with “private attorney general” provisions that provide for the enforcement of laws prohibiting employment discriminationpolice brutality, and water pollution. Under the Clean Water Act, for example, “any citizen” may bring suit against an individual or a company that is a source of water pollution

     Another example of the “private attorney general” provisions is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). RICO allows average citizens (private attorneys general) to sue those organizations that commit mail and wire fraud as part of their criminal enterprise.

     The U.S. Congress codified the private attorney general principle into law with the enactment of Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Award Act of 1976:

42 U.S.C. § 1988. Proceedings in vindication of civil rights – allows the prevailing party to receive a reasonable attorney’s fee as part of the costs, in certain cases.


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[1]: The earliest known use by a court in the United States is by Judge Frank in Associated Industries of New York State, Inc. v. Ickes, 134 F.2d 694 (2d Cir. 1943).

[2]: Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc.390 U.S. 400, 402 (1968)

[3]: Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc.390 U.S. 400 (1968) 88 S.Ct. 964, 19 L.Ed.2d 1263.

[4]: Black’s Law Dictionary Deluxe Tenth Edition by Henry Campbell Black & Editor in Chief Bryan A. Garner. ISBN: 978-0-314-62130-6

[6]:  Ballantine’s Law Dictionary Legal Assistant Edition
by Jack Ballantine 
(James Arthur 1871-1949).  Doctored by Jack G. Handler, J.D. © 1994 Delmar by Thomson Learning.  ISBN 0-8273-4874-6.


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