Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper
447 U.S. 752 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper, 447 U.S. 752 (1980)

Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper

No. 79-701

Argued April 15, 1980

Decided June 23, 1980

447 U.S. 752

Syllabus

Respondents were counsel for the plaintiffs in a civil rights class action in Federal District Court against petitioner alleging that its employment policies discriminated on the basis of race. Because respondents failed to comply with orders relating to discovery and the filing of briefs, petitioner moved to dismiss the suit and requested an award of attorney's fees and court costs under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37. The District Court dismissed the action with prejudice and ordered respondents to pay petitioner's costs and attorney's fees for the entire lawsuit. The court found justification for its ruling in the confluence of the civil rights statutes, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988, 2000e-5(k), which allow the prevailing party to recover attorney's fees "as part of the costs" of litigation, and 28 U.S.C. § 1927, which permits a court to tax the excess "costs" of a proceeding against a lawyer "who so multiplies the proceedings . . . as to increase costs unreasonably and vexatiously. . . ." However, the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded, holding that respondents were not liable for attorney's fees and rejecting the view that the civil rights statutes could be read into § 1927.

Held:

1. Title 28 U.S.C. § 1927 cannot be read to support the sanction of taxing attorney's fees against counsel who unreasonably extend court proceedings, by defining the term "costs" therein according to the civil rights statutes as including attorney's fees. Pp. 447 U. S. 757-763.

(a) It may be assumed that, when the first version of § 1927 was enacted in 1813, Congress followed the "American rule" that attorney's fees ordinarily are not among the "costs" that a winning party may recover. In an 1853 statute, Congress substantially reenacted the provisions now codified in § 1927 as part of a uniform, comprehensive measure setting the fees and costs for all federal actions. The history of the 1853 Act suggests that § 1927 should be read together with the provisions currently codified in 28 U.S.C. § 1920 which, without including attorney's fees, enumerate the costs that ordinarily may be taxed to a losing party. Moreover, petitioner offered no evidence that Congress intended to incorporate into § 1927 the attorney's fee provisions of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1988, 2000e 5(k), which do not mention attorney liability for costs and fees. Pp. 447 U. S. 759-761.

Page 447 U. S. 753

(b) The statutory interpretation proposed by petitioner could introduce into § 1927 distinctions unrelated to its goal of controlling abuses of judicial processes. The fee provisions of the civil rights laws are sensitive to the merits of the action and to antidiscrimination policy, restrict recovery to prevailing parties, and have been construed to treat plaintiffs and defendants somewhat differently. In contrast, § 1927 does not distinguish between winners and losers or between plaintiffs and defendants, and is indifferent to the equities of a dispute and to the values advanced by the substantive law. Moreover, petitioner's statutory construction would create an unjustifiable two-tier system of attorney sanctions whereby lawyers in cases brought under statutes permitting the award of attorney's fees would face stiffer penalties for prolonging litigation than would other attorneys. Pp. 447 U. S. 761-763.

2. Rule 37(b)'s sanctions for failure to comply with discovery orders, including holding parties and counsel personally liable for expenses, "including attorney's fees," must be applied diligently both to penalize those whose conduct may be deemed to warrant such a sanction and to deter those who might be tempted to such conduct in the absence of such a deterrent. National Hockey League v. Metropolitan Hockey Club,427 U. S. 639. On remand, the District Court will have the authority to act upon petitioner's request for costs and attorney's fees under Rule 37(b). Pp. 447 U. S. 763-764.

3. In narrowly defined circumstances, federal courts have inherent power to assess attorney's fees against counsel. The general rule is that a litigant cannot recover his counsel fees, but that rule does not apply when the opposing party has acted in bad faith, including bad faith in the conduct of the litigation. In view of a court's power over members of its bar, if it may tax counsel fees against a party who has litigated in bad faith, it certainly may assess those expenses against counsel who willfully abuse judicial processes. In this case, the trial court did not make a specific finding as to whether counsel's conduct constituted or was tantamount to bad faith, a finding that should precede any sanction under the court's inherent powers. Pp. 447 U. S. 764-767.

599 F.2d 1378, affirmed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined; in Parts I, II, and IV of which STEWART and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined; in all but Part II-A and the first sentence of Part IV of which BLACKMUN, J., joined; and in Part II-B of which STEVENS, J., joined. BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 447 U. S. 768, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 447 U. S. 769, filed opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 447 U. S. 771.

Page 447 U. S. 754

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