February 2014 – U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Appellate Procedure of Matters Including Unresolved Attorney’s Fee Awards

In Ray Haluch Gravel Company v. Central Pension Fund of International Union of Operating Engineers and Participating Employers, 2014 WL 127952, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued an important ruling on the deadline for appeals, and in doing so abrogates the Eleventh Circuit opinion Brandon, Jones, Sandall, Zeide, Kohn, Chalal & Musso P.A. v. MedPartners, Inc., 312 F.3d 1349 (11th Cir. 2002), which held that an unresolved attorney’s fee award prevented a judgment from becoming final.  The Supreme Court holds that unresolved attorneys’ fees and costs pursuant to contract or statute do not prevent finality of a Judgment for purposes of appeal, meaning that a litigant has thirty (30) days to appeal from a judgment on the merits, regardless if attorneys’ fees and costs remain to be awarded.

The Supreme Court recently addressed the question of whether an unresolved issue of attorney’s fees, in part premised on a contract, prevents a Judgment on the merits from being final. Generally, under Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, a party in a civil proceeding planning to appeal a final decision must file the appropriate Notice within thirty (30) days after entry of the judgment or order. Plaintiff/Appellees, who did not file the Notice within 30 days of the Judgment, but did file their Notice of Appeal within 30 days of the subsequent attorney’s fee Award, argued the fee Award premised on the Collective Bargaining Agreement should be treated as a decision on the merits of the entire proceeding making their appeal timely for both the Judgment and the fee Award.

The Supreme Court was unpersuaded, ruling 28 U.S.C. § 1291, which grants appellate jurisdiction, strongly favors operational consistency and predictability. Attorney’s fees and costs, whether authorized through contract or statute, are collateral for finality purposes to the underlying proceeding. District Courts routinely rule on the merits of a proceeding leaving the issue of attorneys’ fees for a subsequent hearing. Attempting to parse whether the fee award is based on statute, contract, or both to then determine whether appellate jurisdiction exists would compromise operational consistency. Moreover, it is not often clear whether an award is based on a contract or statute. Creating a different rule for each could affect predictability as to whether appellate jurisdiction is triggered or not.

The Supreme Court brings litigants additional clarity in recognizing that attorney’s fees are largely a separate issue detached from the merits of the underlying matter giving rise to the litigation in the first place. While attorneys may be meritorious during the proceeding, their fees and costs generally do not constitute the merits of the matter. Litigants planning an appeal should therefore likely file the appropriate Notice while awaiting the subsequent fee award decision.


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