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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND
HUMAN SERVICES, PETITIONER v.
on writ of certiorari to the united states
court of appeals for the federal circuit
[May 20, 2013]
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the
The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of
1986 (NCVIA or Act), 100Stat. 3756, 42 U. S. C.
§300aa–1 et seq.
, provides that a court may
award attorney’s fees and costs “incurred [by a
claimant] in any proceeding on” an unsuccessful
vaccine-injury “petition filed under section
300aa–11,” if that petition “was brought in good
faith and there was a reasonable basis for the claim for which the
petition was brought.” §300aa–15(e)(1). The
Act’s limitations provision states that “no petition
may be filed for compensation” more than 36 months after the
claimant’s initial symptoms occur.
§300aa–16(a)(2). The question before us is whether an
untimely petition can garner an award of attorney’s fees. We
agree with a majority of the en banc Court of Appeals for the
Federal Circuit that it can.
The NCVIA “establishes a no-fault
compensation program ‘designed to work faster and with
greater ease than the civil tort system.’ ”
v. Wyeth LLC
, 562 U. S. ___, ___
(2011) (slip op., at 3) (quoting Shalala
, 514 U.S.
, 269 (1995)). Congress enacted the NCVIA to stabilize the
vaccine market and expedite compensation to injured parties after
complaints mounted regarding the inefficiencies and costs borne by
both injured consumers and vaccine manufacturers under the pre-
vious civil tort compensation regime. 562 U. S., at
___–___ (slip op., at 2–3); H. R. Rep. No.
99–908, pt. 1, pp. 6–7 (1986) (hereinafter H. R.
The compensation program’s procedures are
straightforward. First, “[a] proceeding for compensation
under the Program for a vaccine-related injury or death shall be
initiated by service upon the Secretary [for the Department of
Health and Human Services] and the filing of a petition containing
the matter prescribed by subsection (c) of this section with the
United States Court of Federal Claims.” 42 U. S. C.
§300aa–11(a)(1). Subsection (c) pro- vides in relevant
part that a petition must include “an affidavit, and
supporting documentation, demonstrating that the person who
suffered such injury” was actually vaccinated and suffered an
injury. §300aa–11(c)(1). Next, upon receipt of an NCVIA
petition, “[t]he clerk of the United States Court of Federal
Claims shall immediately forward the filed petition to the chief
special master for assignment to a special master.”
§300aa–11(a)(1). This special master then “makes
an informal adjudication of the petition.” Bruesewitz
562 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 3) (citing
§300aa–12(d)(3)). A successful claimant may recover
medical costs, lost earning capacity, and an award for pain and
suffering, 42 U. S. C. §300aa–15(a), with
compensation paid out from a federal trust fund supported by an
excise tax levied on each dose of certain covered vaccines, see 26
U. S. C. §§4131, 4132, 9510; 42
U. S. C. §300aa–15(f)(4)(A). But under the
Act’s limitations provision, “no petition may be filed
for compensation under the Program for [a vaccine-related] injury
after the expiration of 36 months after the date of the occurrence
of the first symptom or manifestation of onset or of the
significant aggravation of” the alleged injury.
The Act also includes an unusual scheme for
compensating attorneys who work on NCVIA petitions. See
“No attorney may charge any fee for services in connection
with a petition filed under section 300aa–11 of this
] But a court may award attorney’s fees in
certain circumstances. In the case of successful petitions, the
award of attorney’s fees is automatic.
§300aa–15(e)(1) (“In awarding compensation on a
petition filed under section 300aa–11 of this title the
special master or court shall also award as part of such
compensation an amount to cover . . . reasonable
attorneys’ fees, and . . . other costs”). For
unsuccessful petitions, “the special master or court may
award an amount of compensation to cover petitioner’s
reasonable attorneys’ fees and other costs incurred in any
proceeding on such petition if the special master or court
determines that the petition was brought in good faith and there
was a reasonable basis for the claim for which the petition was
In other words,
“[a]ttorney’s fees are provided, not only for
successful cases, but even for unsuccessful claims that are not
, 562 U. S., at ___ (slip
op., at 4).
Respondent, Dr. Melissa Cloer, received three
Hepatitis-B immunizations from September 1996 to April 1997.
Shortly after receiving the third vaccine, Dr. Cloer began to
experience numbness and strange sensations in her left forearm and
hand. She sought treatment in 1998 and 1999, but the diagnoses she
received were inconclusive. By then, Dr. Cloer was experiencing
numbness in her face, arms, and legs, and she had difficulty
walking. She intermittently suffered these symptoms until 2003,
when she began to experience the full manifestations of, and was
eventually diagnosed with, multiple sclerosis (MS). In 2004, Dr.
Cloer became aware of a link between MS and the Hepatitis-B
vaccine, and in September 2005, she filed a claim for compensation
under the NCVIA, alleging that the vaccinations she received had
caused or exacerbated her MS.
Dr. Cloer’s petition was sent by the clerk
of the Court of Federal Claims to the Chief Special Master, who
went on to adjudicate it. After reviewing the petition and its
supporting documentation, the Chief Special Master concluded that
Dr. Cloer’s claim was untimely because the Act’s
36-month limitations period began to run when she first experienced
the symptoms of MS in 1997. Cloer
v. Secretary of Dept.
of Health and Human Servs.
, No. 05–1002V, 2008 WL
2275574, *1, *10 (Fed. Cl., May 15, 2008) (opinion of Golkiewicz,
Chief Special Master) (citing §300aa–16(a)(2)
(NCVIA’s limitations provision)). Relying on Federal Circuit
precedent, the Chief Special Master also rejected Dr. Cloer’s
argument that the NCVIA’s limitations period should be
subject to equitable tolling. Id.,
at *9 (citing
v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs.
240 F.3d 1367
, 1373 (2001)). A divided panel of the Federal
Circuit reversed the Chief Special Master, concluding that the
NCVIA’s limitations period did not commence until “the
medical community at large objectively recognize[d] a link between
the vaccine and the injury.” Cloer
v. Secretary of
Health and Human Servs.
, 603 F.3d 1341, 1346 (2010).
The en banc court then reversed the
panel’s decision, Cloer
v. Secretary of Health and
, 654 F.3d 1322 (2011), cert. denied, 566
U. S. ___ (2012), and held that the statute’s
limitations period begins to run on “the calendar date of the
occurrence of the first medically recognized symptom or
manifestation of onset of the injury claimed by the
petitioner.” 654 F. 3d,
at 1324–1325. The
Court of Appeals also held that the Act’s limitations
provision was nonjurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling in
limited circumstances, overruling its prior holding in
. 654 F. 3d,
at 1341–1344. The court
concluded, however, that Dr. Cloer was ineligible for tolling and
that her petition was untimely. Id.,
Following this decision, Dr. Cloer moved for an
award of attorney’s fees. The en banc Federal Circuit agreed
with her that a person who files an untimely NCVIA petition
“assert[ing] a reasonable limitations argument” may re-
cover fees and costs so long as “ ‘the petition
was brought in good faith and there was a reasonable basis for the
claim for which the petition was brought.’ ” 675
F.3d 1358, 1359–1361 (2012) (quoting
§300aa–15(e)(1)). Six judges disagreed with this
conclusion and instead read the NCVIA to bar such awards for
untimely petitions. Id.,
at 1364–1368 (Bryson, J.,
dissenting). We granted the Government’s petition for writ of
certiorari. 568 U. S. ___ (2012). We now affirm.
As in any statutory construction case,
“[w]e start, of course, with the statutory text,” and
proceed from the understanding that “[u]nless otherwise
defined, statutory terms are generally interpreted in accordance
with their ordinary meaning.” BP America Production
, 549 U.S.
, 91 (2006). The Act’s fees provision ties eligibility
for attorney’s fees broadly to “any proceeding on such
petition,” referring specifically to “a petition filed
under section 300aa–11.” 42 U. S. C.
§§300aa–15(e)(1), (3). Section 300aa–11
provides that “[a] proceeding for compensation” is
“initiated” by “service upon the Secretary”
and “the filing of a petition containing” certain
documentation with the clerk of the Court of Federal Claims who
then “immediately forward[s] the filed petition” for
assignment to a special master. §300aa–11(a)(1). See
Nothing in these two provisions suggests that
the reason for the subsequent dismissal of a petition, such as its
untimeliness, nullifies the initial filing of that petition. We
have explained that “[a]n application is ‘filed,’
as that term is commonly understood, when it is delivered to, and
accepted by, the appropriate court officer for placement into the
official record.” Artuz
, 531 U.S.
, 8 (2000). When this ordinary meaning is applied to the text
of the statute, it is clear that an NCVIA petition which is
delivered to the clerk of the court, forwarded for processing, and
adjudicated in a proceeding before a special master is a
“petition filed under section 300aa–11.” 42
U. S. C. §300aa–15(e)(1). And so long as such
a petition was brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis,
it is eligible for an award of attorney’s fees, even if it is
ultimately unsuccessful. Ibid.
If Congress had intended to
limit fee awards to timely petitions, it could easily have done so.
But the NCVIA instead authorizes courts to award attorney’s
fees for those unsuccessful petitions “brought in good faith
and [for which] there was a reasonable basis.”
The Government argues that the Act’s
limitations provision, which states that “no petition may be
filed for compensation” 36 months after a claimant’s
initial symptoms began, §300aa–16(a)(2), constitutes
“a statutory prerequisite to the filing of a petition
‘for compensation under the Program,’ ”
Brief for Petitioner 16. Thus, the Government contends, a petition
that fails to comply with these time limits is not “a
petition filed under section 300aa–11” and is therefore
ineligible for fees under §300aa–15(e)(1). See 675
F. 3d, at 1364–1366 (Bryson, J., dissenting).
The Government’s argument lacks textual
support. First, as noted, there is no cross-reference to the
Act’s limitations provision in its fees provision,
§300aa–15(e), or the other section it references,
§300aa–11(a)(1). When these two linked sections are read
in tandem they simply indicate that petitions filed with the clerk
of the court are eligible for attorney’s fees so long as they
comply with the other requirements of the Act’s fees
provision. By its terms, the NCVIA requires nothing more for the
award of attorney’s fees. A petition filed in violation of
the limitations period will not result in the payment of
compensation, of course, but it is still a petition filed under
When the Act does require compliance with the
limitations period, it provides so expressly. For example,
§300aa–11(a)(2)(A) prevents claimants from bringing suit
against vaccine manufacturers “unless a petition has been
filed, in accordance with section 300aa–16 of this
[the limitations provision], for compensation under the
Program for such injury or death.” (Emphasis added.) We have
long held that “[w]here Congress includes particular language
in one section of a statute but omits it in another section of the
same Act, it is generally presumed that Congress acts intentionally
and purposely in the disparate inclusion or exclusion.”
v. United States
, 522 U.S.
, 29–30 (1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). The
absence of any cross-reference to the limitations provision in
either the fees provision, §300aa–15(e)(1), or the
instructions for initiating a compensation proceeding,
§300aa–11(a)(1), indicates that a petition can be
“filed” without being “in accordance with [the
limitations provision].” Tellingly, nothing in
§300aa–11(a)(1) requires a petitioner to allege or
demonstrate the timeliness of his or her petition to initiate such
Second, to adopt the Government’s
position, we would have to conclude that a petition like Dr.
Cloer’s, which was “filed” under the ordinary
meaning of that term but was later found to be untimely, was never
filed at all because, on the Government’s reading, “no
petition may be filed
for compensation” late.
§300aa–16(a)(2) (emphasis added). Yet the court below
identified numerous instances throughout the NCVIA where the word
“filed” is given its ordinary meaning, 675 F. 3d,
at 1361, and the Government does not challenge this aspect of its
decision. Indeed, the Government’s reading would produce
anomalous results with respect to these other NCVIA provisions.
Consider §300aa–12(b)(2), which provides that
“[w]ithin 30 days after the Secretary receives service of any
petition filed under section 300aa–11 of this title the
Secretary shall publish notice of such petition in the Federal
Register.” If the NCVIA’s limitations provision worked
to void the filing of an untimely petition, then one would expect
the Secretary to make timeliness determinations prior to publishing
such notice or to strike any petitions found to be untimely from
the Federal Register. But there is no indication that the Secretary
does either of these things.[7
The Government asks us to adopt a different
definition of the term “filed” for a single subsection
so that for fees purposes, and only for fees purposes, a petition
filed out of time must be treated retroactively as though it was
never filed in the first place. Nothing in the text or structure of
the statute requires the unusual result the Government asks us to
accept. In the NCVIA, the word “filed” carries its
common meaning. See Artuz
, 531 U. S., at 8. That
“no petition may be filed for compensation” after the
limitations period has run does not mean that a late petition was
never filed at all.
Our “inquiry ceases [in a statutory
construction case] if the statutory language is unambiguous and the
statutory scheme is coherent and consistent.” Barnhart
v. Sigmon Coal Co.
, 534 U.S.
, 450 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). The text of
the statute is clear: like any other unsuccessful petition, an
untimely petition brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis
that is filed with—meaning delivered to and received
by—the clerk of the Court of Federal Claims is eligible for
an award of attorney’s fees.
The Government’s position is also
inconsistent with the goals of the fees provision itself. A stated
purpose of the Act’s fees scheme was to avoid
“limit[ing] petitioners’ ability to obtain qualified
assistance” by making fees awards available for
“non-prevailing, good-faith claims.” H. R. Rep.,
at 22. The Government does not explain why Congress would have
intended to discourage counsel from representing petitioners who,
because of the difficulty of distinguishing between the initial
symptoms of a vaccine-related injury and an unrelated malady, see,
v. Secretary of Dept. of Health and
, No. 02–93V, 2006 WL 5610517, *6–*7
(Fed. Cl., July 21, 2006) (opinion of Golkiewicz, Chief Special
Master), may have good-faith claims with a reasonable basis that
will only later be found untimely.
The Government offers two additional lines of
argument for barring the award of attorney’s fees for
untimely petitions. It first invokes two canons of construction:
the canon favoring strict construction of waivers of sovereign
immunity and the “ ‘presumption favoring the
retention of long-established and familiar [common-law]
principles.’ ” Brief for Petitioner 32 (quoting
, 507 U.S.
, 534 (1993)). Similarly, the Government also argues that
the NCVIA should be construed so as to minimize complex and costly
fees litigation. But as the Government acknowledges, such canons
and policy arguments come into play only “[t]o the extent
that the Vaccine Act is ambiguous.” Brief for Petitioner 28.
These “rules of thumb” give way when “the words
of a statute are unambiguous,” as they are here.
Connecticut Nat. Bank
, 503 U.S.
, 253–254 (1992).
Second, the Government argues that permitting
the recovery of attorney’s fees for untimely petitions will
force special masters to carry out costly and wasteful
“shadow trials,” with no benefit to claimants, in order
to determine whether these late petitions were brought in good
faith and with a reasonable basis. We reiterate that “when
[a] statute’s language is plain, the sole function of the
courts—at least where the disposition required by the text is
not absurd—is to enforce it according to its terms.”
Hartford Underwriters Ins. Co.
v. Union Planters Bank,
, 530 U.S.
, 6 (2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). Consequently,
even if the plain text of the NCVIA requires that special masters
occasionally carry out such “shadow trials,” that is
not such an absurd burden as to require departure from the words of
the Act. This is particularly true here because Congress has
specifically provided for such “shadow trials” by
permitting the award of attorney’s fees “in any
proceeding [on an unsuccessful] petition” if such petition
was brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis, 42
U. S. C. §300aa–15(e)(1) (emphasis added),
irrespective of the reasons for the petition’s failure, see,
v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs.
No. 07–443V, 2012 WL 6951286, *2, *13 (Fed. Cl., Dec. 20,
2012) (opinion of Moran, Special Master) (awarding attorney’s
fees despite petitioner’s failure to prove causation).
In any event, the Government’s fears
appear to us exaggerated. Special masters consistently make fee
deter- minations on the basis of the extensive documentation
required by §300aa–11(c) and included with the
] Indeed, when
adjudicating the timeliness of a petition, the special master may
often have to develop a good sense of the merits of a case, and
will therefore be able to determine if a reasonable basis exists
for the petitioner’s claim, including whether there is a
good-faith reason for the untimely filing. In this case, for
example, the Chief Special Master conducted a “review of the
record as a whole,” including the medical evidence that would
have supported the merits of Dr. Cloer’s claim, before
determining that her petition was untimely. Cloer
, 2008 WL
2275574, *1–*2, *10.
The Government also argues that permitting
attorney’s fees on untimely petitions will lead to the filing
of more untimely petitions. But the Government offers no evidence
to support its speculation. Additionally, this argument is premised
on the assumption that in the pursuit of fees, attorneys will
choose to bring claims lacking good faith or a reasonable basis in
derogation of their ethical duties. There is no basis for such an
assumption. Finally, the special masters have shown themselves more
than capable of discerning untimely claims supported by good faith
and a reasonable basis from those that are specious. Supra
* * *
We hold that an NCVIA petition found to be
untimely may qualify for an award of attorney’s fees if it is
filed in good faith and there is a reasonable basis for its
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is
It is so ordered.