Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Central Pension Fund of Operating Engineers and Participating Employers
571 U.S. ___ (2014)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary
Union-affiliated benefit funds sued Haluch to collect benefits contributions required to be paid under federal law, plus attorney’s fees and costs, which were obligations under a federal statute and the parties’ collective bargaining agreement. The district court issued an order on June 17, on the merits of the contribution claim, and a separate ruling on July 25, on the motion for fees and costs. The Funds appealed on August 15. Haluch argued that the June 17 order was a final decision under 28 U.S.C. 1291, so that notice of appeal was not filed within the 30-day deadline. The First Circuit acknowledged that an unresolved fee issue generally does not prevent judgment on the merits from being final, but held that no final decision was rendered until July 25 because entitlement to fees and costs under the CBA was an element of damages and thus part of the merits. The Supreme Court reversed, finding the appeal of the June 17 decision untimely. The Funds’ claim that contractual attorney’s fees provisions are always a measure of damages failed. There is no justification for different jurisdictional effect based solely on whether an asserted right to fees is based on contract or statute.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

RAY HALUCH GRAVEL CO. et al. v. CENTRAL PENSION FUND OF INTERNATIONAL UNION OF OPERATING ENGINEERS AND PARTICIPATING EMPLOYERS et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the first circuit

No. 12–992. Argued December 9, 2013—Decided January 15, 2014

Respondents, various union-affiliated benefit funds (Funds), sued petitioner Ray Haluch Gravel Co. (Haluch) in Federal District Court to collect benefits contributions required to be paid under federal law. The Funds also sought attorney’s fees and costs, which were obligations under both a federal statute and the parties’ collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The District Court issued an order on June 17, 2011, on the merits of the contribution claim and a separate ruling on July 25 on the Funds’ motion for fees and costs. The Funds appealed both decisions on August 15. Haluch argued that the June 17 order was a final decision pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §1291, and thus, the Funds’ notice of appeal was untimely since it was not filed within the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure’s 30-day deadline. The Funds disagreed, arguing that there was no final decision until July 25. The First Circuit acknowledged that an unresolved attorney’s fees issue generally does not prevent judgment on the merits from being final, but held that no final decision was rendered until July 25 since the entitlement to fees and costs provided for in the CBA was an element of damages and thus part of the merits. Accordingly, the First Circuit addressed the appeal with respect to both the unpaid contributions and the fees and costs.

Held: The appeal of the June 17 decision was untimely. Pp. 5–13.

     (a) This case has instructive similarities to Budinich v. Becton Dickinson & Co., 486 U. S. 196 . There, this Court held a district court judgment to be a “final decision” for §1291 purposes despite an unresolved motion for statutory-based attorney’s fees, noting that fee awards do not remedy the injury giving rise to the action, are often available to the defending party, and were, at common law, an element of “costs” awarded to a prevailing party, not a part of the merits judgment. Id., at 200. Even if laws authorizing fees might sometimes treat them as part of the merits, considerations of “operational consistency and predictability in the overall application of §1291” favored a “uniform rule.” Id., at 202. Pp. 5–7.

     (b) The Funds’ attempts to distinguish Budinich fail. Pp. 7–13.

          (1) Their claim that contractual attorney’s fees provisions are always a measure of damages is unpersuasive, for such provisions often provide attorney’s fees to prevailing defendants. More basic, Budinich’s uniform rule did not depend on whether the law authorizing a particular fee claim treated the fees as part of the merits, 486 U. S., at 201, and there is no reason to depart from that sound reasoning here. The operational consistency stressed in Budinich is not promoted by providing for different jurisdictional effect based solely on whether an asserted right to fees is based on contract or statute. Nor is predictability promoted since it is not always clear whether and to what extent a fee claim is contractual rather than statutory. The Funds urge the importance of avoiding piecemeal litigation, but the Budinich Court was aware of such concerns when it adopted a uniform rule, and it suffices to say that those concerns are counterbalanced by the interest in determining with promptness and clarity whether the ruling on the merits will be appealed, especially given the complexity and amount of time it may take to resolve attorney’s fees claims. Furthermore, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide a means to avoid a piecemeal approach in many cases. See, e.g., Rules 54(d)(2), 58(e). Complex variations in statutory and contractual fee-shifting provisions also counsel against treating attorney’s fees claims authorized by contract and statute differently for finality purposes. The Budinich rule looks solely to the character of the issue that remains open after the court has otherwise ruled on the merits. The Funds suggest that it is unclear whether Budinich applies where, as here, nonattorney professional fees are included in a motion for attorney’s fees and costs. They are mistaken to the extent that they suggest that such fees will be claimed only where a contractual fee claim is involved. Many fee-shifting statutes authorize courts to award related litigation expenses like expert fees, see West Virginia Univ. Hospitals, Inc. v. Casey, 499 U. S. 83 , n. 4, and there is no apparent reason why parties or courts would find it difficult to tell that Budinich remains applicable where such fees are claimed and awarded incidental to attorney’s fees. Pp. 7–11.

          (2) The Funds’ claim that fees accrued prior to the commencement of litigation fall outside the scope of Budinich is also unpersuasive. Budinich referred to fees “for the litigation in question,” 486 U. S., at 202, or “attributable to the case,” id., at 203, but this Court has observed that “some of the services performed before a lawsuit is formally commenced by the filing of a complaint are performed ‘on the litigation,’ ” Webb v. Dyer County Bd. of Ed., 471 U. S. 234 . Here, the fees for investigation, preliminary legal research, drafting of demand letters, and working on the initial complaint fit the description of standard preliminary steps toward litigation. Pp. 11–13.

695 F. 3d 1, reversed and remanded.

     Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.