Crawford Fitting Co. v. J. T. Gibbons, Inc.
482 U.S. 437 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Crawford Fitting Co. v. J. T. Gibbons, Inc., 482 U.S. 437 (1987)

Crawford Fitting Co. v. J. T. Gibbons, Inc.

No. 86-322

Argued April 29, 1987

Decided June 15, 1987*

482 U.S. 437

Syllabus

Title 28 U.S.C. § 1920 provides that a federal court "may tax" specified items, including witness fees, as costs against the losing party, and § 1821(b) states that a witness "shall be paid" a fee of $30 per day for court attendance. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) provides in part:

"Except when express provision therefor is made either in a statute of the United States or in these rules, costs shall be allowed as of course to the prevailing party unless the court otherwise directs."

In No. 86-322, petitioners prevailed as the defendants in an antitrust action filed by respondent, and the Federal District Court awarded, as part of petitioners' costs, an amount for expert witness fees in excess of § 1821(b)'s $30-per-day limit, holding that Rule 54(d) granted it discretion to exceed such limit. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that § 1821(b)'s limit controlled. In No. 86-328, petitioner prevailed in an action against it by respondents for alleged violations of federal civil rights statutes. The Federal District Court refused to order respondents to reimburse petitioner for its expert witness fees to the extent they exceeded the $30-per-day limit, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: When a prevailing party seeks reimbursement for fees paid to its expert witnesses, a federal court is bound by the limits of § 1821(b), absent contract or explicit statutory authority to the contrary. There is no merit to petitioners' contentions that, since § 1920 lists expenses which a court "may" tax as costs, it only authorizes taxation of such items, and does not preclude taxation for other items or amounts in excess of the § 1821(b) fee; and that the discretion granted by Rule 54(d) is a separate power to tax expenses as costs. If Rule 54(d) were so construed, § 1920 would serve no role whatsoever. The better view is that § 1920 defines the term "costs" as used in Rule 54(d) and enumerates expenses that a federal court may tax as costs under the discretionary authority found in Rule 54(d). Section 1920 is phrased permissibly because Rule 54(d) generally grants a federal court discretion to refuse to tax costs in favor of

Page 482 U. S. 438

the prevailing party. Such discretion is not a power to evade the specific congressional command limiting the amount of witness fees. Rather, it is solely a power to decline to tax, as costs, the items enumerated in § 1920. The dictum to the contrary in Farmer v. Arabian American Oil Co.,379 U. S. 227, is disapproved. Henkel v. Chicago, S. P., M. & O. R. Co.,284 U. S. 444 -- which held that federal courts had no authority to award expert witness fees in excess of the 1853 statutory limit -- controls here, even though it was decided before the adoption of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the merger of law and equity in the federal courts. Cf. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society,421 U. S. 240. Pp. 482 U. S. 441-445.

790 F.2d 1193, affirmed and remanded; and 790 F.2d 1174, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J. filed a concurring opinion, post p. 482 U. S. 445. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post p. 482 U. S. 445.

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