U.S. Supreme Court Grants Petition to Clarify ERISA Technicality

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Ray Haluch Gravel Co., et al., v. Cent. Pension Fund of the Int’l Union of Oper. Eng’rs & Participating Emp’rs, et al., case No. 12-992
Petition Granted June 17, 2013

According to the petition, “[t]he question presented in this case, on which there is an acknowledged conflict among nine circuits, is whether a district court’s decision on the merits that leaves unresolved a request for contractual attorney’s fees is a “final decision” under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.”

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case that could bring clarity regarding the 30-day deadline to appeal a decision that leaves a contractual request for attorneys’ fees unresolved. Procedurally, in the underlying case the district court issued a decision on the merits and then awarded attorney’s fees in a separate order more than a month later. The respondents then filed a notice of appeal within 30 days of the latter order awarding attorneys fees but not within 30 days of the decision on the merits.

The circuits are in disarray on that question and the First Circuit’s ruling which held that such a decision on the merits is not final is at odds not only with other appeals courts, but also with a 1988 decision from the First Circuit itself.

The First Circuit vacated a pair of lower court decisions which entitled plaintiffs to recover benefit contributions, and awarded them approximately $27,000. The second decision on attorneys’ fees owed under a collective bargaining agreement was issued more than a month later. The plaintiffs argued that court lacked jurisdiction over the appeal of the earlier of the two decisions because the union defendants had waited until after the fee decision to appeal thereby missing the 30-day deadline to challenge the earlier decisions.

The First Circuit’s held that the earlier decision on the merits was not final because the fee award was a part of the merits. According to the petitioner this decision is irreconcilable with earlier First Circuit precedent, and also contributes to a longtime circuit split whereas 9 of the 13 circuits have tackled the question of if and how a claim for contractual attorneys’ fees affects the finality of a decision on the merits, and the circuits have reached a variety of differing conclusions.

It is expected that the Court’s decision will have an impact even outside of the ERISA landscape in all cases dealing with contractual awards of attorneys’ fees.

Click here for the petition.