Hall v. Cole
412 U.S. 1 (1973)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Hall v. Cole, 412 U.S. 1 (1973)

Hall v. Cole

No. 72-630

Argued March 21, 1973

Decided May 21, 1973

412 U.S. 1




Respondent, expelled from his union for deliberate and malicious vilification of union management following his resolutions unsuccessfully condemning that management's alleged undemocratic actions and shortsighted policies, regained his union membership in a suit under § 102 of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) and was awarded $5,500 in legal fees. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. Respondent's suit under § 102 of the LMRDA vindicated not only his own rights of free speech guaranteed by the statute but furthered the interests of the union and its members as well. As a result, the award to respondent of attorneys' fees under these circumstances comported with the trial court's inherent equitable power of making such an award whenever "overriding considerations indicate the need for such a recovery." Mills v. Electric Auto-Lite Co.,396 U. S. 375, 396 U. S. 391-392. Pp. 412 U. S. 4-9.

2. The allowance of counsel fees to the successful plaintiff in a suit brought under § 102 is not precluded by that statutory provision and, indeed, is supported by the legislative history of the LMRDA. Pp. 412 U. S. 9-14.

3. Under all the facts of the case, the District Court did not

Page 412 U. S. 2

abuse its discretion in awarding counsel fees to respondent. Pp. 412 U. S. 14-15.

462 F.2d 777, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and DOUGLAS, STEWART, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. WHITE, J. filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 412 U. S. 16. MARSHALL, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to consider the propriety of an award of counsel fees to a successful plaintiff in a suit brought under § 102 of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, 73 Stat. 523, 29 U.S.C. § 412. [Footnote 1] On August 6, 1962, at a regular meeting of the membership of petitioner Seafarers International Union of North America -- Atlantic, Gulf, Lakes and Inland Waters District, respondent introduced a set of resolutions alleging various instances of undemocratic actions and shortsighted policies on the part of union officers.

Page 412 U. S. 3

The resolutions were defeated and, on November 26, 1962, respondent was expelled from the union on the ground that his presentation of the resolutions violated a union rule proscribing "deliberate or malicious vilification with regard to the execution or the duties of any office or job." After exhausting his intra-union remedies, respondent filed this suit under § 102 of the LMRDA, claiming that his expulsion under these circumstances violated his right of free speech as secured by § 101(a)(2) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 411(a)(2). [Footnote 2]

On May 27, 1964, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York issued a temporary injunction restoring respondent's membership in the union, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. 339 F.2d 881 (1965). Some five years later, the case came on for trial and the District Court, finding a violation of respondent's rights under § 101-(a)(2), ordered him permanently reinstated to membership in the union and, although denying respondent's damages claims, [Footnote 3] granted him counsel fees in the sum of $5,500 against the union. The Court of

Page 412 U. S. 4

Appeals affirmed in all respects, 462 F.2d 777 (1972). We granted certiorari limited to the questions whether (1) an award of attorneys' fees is permissible under § 102 of the LMRDA, and (2) if so, whether such an award under the facts of this case constituted an abuse of the District Court's discretion. 409 U.S. 1074. We affirm.


Although the traditional American [Footnote 4] rule ordinarily disfavors the allowance of attorneys' fees in the absence of statutory [Footnote 5] or contractual authorization, [Footnote 6] federal courts,

Page 412 U. S. 5

in the exercise of their equitable powers, may award attorneys' fees when the interests of justice so require. Indeed, the power to award such fees "is part of the original authority of the chancellor to do equity in a particular situation," Sprague v. Ticonic National Bank,307 U. S. 161, 307 U. S. 166 (1939), and federal courts do not hesitate to exercise this inherent equitable power whenever "overriding considerations indicate the need for such a recovery." Mills v. Electric Auto-Lite Co.,396 U. S. 375, 396 U. S. 391-392 (1970); see Fleischmann Distilling Corp. v. Maier Brewing Co.,386 U. S. 714, 386 U. S. 718 (1967).

Thus, it is unquestioned that a federal court may award counsel fees to a successful party when his opponent has acted "in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive reasons." 6 J. Moore, Federal Practice

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