Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Supreme Court: Appeal Time Starts Running on Merits Order Despite Pendency of Attorneys' Fees Motion
Here's one of those lawyer's procedural nightmares: an order you believe to be interlocutory actually turns out to be a final decision under 28 U.S.C. §1291, so that the 30-day appeal time has run before you've figured it out.
That's what happened in the third Supreme Court opinion on civil procedure issued this week, Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Central Pension Fund. Union-affiliated benefit funds (Respondent Funds) sued Petitioner Haluch, a landscape supply company, for unpaid contributions that the Funds claimed were required under a collective-bargaining agreement, ERISA, and the LMRA. The Funds also sought attorneys' and other fees under ERISA and the CBA itself.
After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment on June 17, 2011, ordering that the Funds were entitled to $26,897.41 in unpaid contributions, which was less than had been requested. The District Court did not rule on the Funds' separate motion for attorney's fees and other costs until July 25, 2011, when it awarded $34,688.15 in attorney's fees, which was about one-quarter of the amount requested.
On August 15, 2011, the Funds appealed from both orders. In the First Circuit, Haluch argued that the June 17 decision on the merits was a final decision under 28 U.S.C. §1291, so that the appeal from that decision, made more than 30 days later, was untimely. The Funds argued that there was no final decision until July 25, when the District Court rendered a decision on their request for attorney's fees and costs. Judge Selya agreed with the Funds, holding the appeal timely on all issues.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Kennedy, reversed:
In Budinich v. Becton Dickinson & Co., 486 U.S. 196, 108 S.Ct. 1717, 100 L.Ed.2d 178 (1988), this Court held that a decision on the merits is a “final decision” under § 1291 even if the award or amount of attorney's fees for the litigation remains to be determined. The issue in this case is whether a different result obtains if the unresolved claim for attorney's fees is based on a contract rather than, or in addition to, a statute. The answer here, for purposes of § 1291 and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, is that the result is not different. Whether the claim for attorney's fees is based on a statute, a contract, or both, the pendency of a ruling on an award for fees and costs does not prevent, as a general rule, the merits judgment from becoming final for purposes of appeal.