October Term, 2013
January 15, 2014
Today the Supreme Court issued one decision, described below, of interest to the business community.
Appealability—Finality of Decision Leaving Request for Contractual Attorney’s Fees Unresolved
Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Central Pension Fund, No. 12-992 (previously discussed in the June 17, 2013, Docket Report)
In Budinich v. Becton Dickinson & Co., 486 U.S. 196 (1998), the Supreme Court held that a district-court decision that fully resolves the merits of the litigation, but leaves the award or amount of attorney’s fees authorized by statute to be determined, is a “final decision” that must be appealed within 30 days. Today, in Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Central Pension Fund, No. 12-992, the Supreme Court held that this uniform rule applies regardless of whether the claim for attorney’s fees is based on a statute, a contract, or both. The Court also confirmed that this rule applies when the fee request includes non-attorney fees incurred in the litigation, such as expert-witness fees. Mayer Brown successfully represented the petitioners in this case.
Today’s decision is significant for the business community because it clarifies the procedures that must be followed by parties appealing a decision in cases involving claims for attorney’s fees, which are common in commercial litigation. Failure to follow these procedures may waive a party’s appeal of the decision on the merits.
The plaintiffs in this case alleged that the defendants failed to make required contributions to union-benefits funds. In their suit to collect the unpaid contributions, the plaintiffs also sought to recover certain attorney’s fees and auditor’s fees incurred in the litigation. The district court issued an initial decision resolving the merits of the claim for unpaid contributions but did not issue its decision addressing attorney’s fees and auditor’s fees until more than a month later. The plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal within 30 days of the order resolving the motion for attorney’s fees, but not within 30 days of the earlier order resolving the merits of the unpaid-contributions claim.
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Kennedy held that the appeal was untimely as to the initial decision on the merits of the unpaid-contributions claim. The Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that attorney’s fees awarded under a contract, unlike fees authorized by statute, should be considered part of the merits and preclude the decision from becoming final until the fee request is resolved. The Court previously rejected that position when addressing a statutory fee award in Budinich, and today’s decision holds that the same rule applies regardless of whether a claim for attorney’s fees is based on a statute, a contract, or both. The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Budinich should not apply to their fee request because it included certain auditor’s fees in addition to attorney’s fees, holding that the same rule applies for both attorney’s fees and non-attorney professional fees incurred in the litigation.
The lesson of today’s decision is clear: Parties seeking to appeal the merits of a district court’s decision must file their notice of appeal within 30 days of the court’s ruling on the merits, even if that ruling does not resolve a pending claim for attorney’s fees, or else their appeal of the merits will be dismissed as untimely.
Any questions about this case should be directed to Dan Himmelfarb (+1 202 263 3035) or Charles A. Rothfeld (+1 202 263 3233) in our Washington office.
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