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U.S. Supreme Court holds that bad faith fee sanction under court’s inherent authority is limited to fees incurred solely from the misconduct

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the important and very recent United States Supreme Court opinion which held that a bad faith fee sanction based upon a court’s inherent authority is limited to fees incurred solely as a result of the misconduct.  The case is Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., v. Haeger, 813 F. 3d 1233, No. 15–1406 (Argued January 10, 2017—Decided April 18, 2017).  The United States Supreme Court opinion is here:

According to the opinion, which was delivered by Justice Kagan, the Haegers sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, alleging that the failure of a Goodyear G159 tire caused the family’s motorhome to swerve off the road and flip over.  “After several years of contentious discovery, marked by Goodyear’s slow response to repeated requests for internal G159 test results, the parties settled the case. Some months later, the Haegers’ lawyer learned that, in another lawsuit involving the G159, Goodyear had disclosed test results indicating that the tire got unusually hot at highway speeds. In subsequent correspondence, Goodyear conceded withholding the information from the Haegers, even though they had requested all testing data. The Haegers then sought sanctions for discovery fraud, urging that Goodyear’s misconduct entitled them to attorney’s fees and costs expended in the litigation.

“The District Court found that Goodyear had engaged in an extended course of misconduct. Exercising its inherent power to sanction bad-faith behavior, the court awarded the Haegers $2.7 million—the entire sum they had spent in legal fees and costs since the moment, early in the litigation, when Goodyear made its first dishonest discovery response. The court said that in the usual case, sanctions ordered pursuant to a court’s inherent power to sanction litigation misconduct must be limited to the amount of legal fees caused by that misconduct. But it determined that in cases of particularly egregious behavior, a court can award a party all of the attorney’s fees incurred in a case, without any need to find a “causal link between [the expenses and] the sanctionable conduct.” (citation omitted)

“As further support for its award, the District Court concluded that full and timely disclosure of the test results would likely have led Goodyear to settle the case much earlier. Acknowledging that the Ninth Circuit might require a link between the misconduct and the harm caused, however, the court also made a contingent award of $2 million. That smaller amount, designed to take effect if the Ninth Circuit reversed the larger award, deducted $700,000 in fees the Haegers incurred in developing claims against other defendants and proving their own medical damages. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the full $2.7 million award, concluding that the District Court had properly awarded the Haegers all the fees they incurred during the time when Goodyear was acting in bad faith.

Goodyear argued that, due to the failure of the court to link the fee with the misconduct, the fee award should be reversed and an instruction to the trial court to reconsider the matter. The Haegers argued that the award should be upheld because the lower courts articulated and applied the appropriate but-for causation standard, or, even if they did not, the fee award in fact passes the but-for test.

“The Haegers’ defense of the lower courts’ reasoning is a non-starter: Neither court used the correct legal standard. The District Court specifically disclaimed the need for a causal link on the ground that this was a “truly egregious” case. 906 F. Supp. 2d, at 975. And the Ninth Circuit found that the trial court could grant all attorney’s fees incurred “during the time when [Goodyear was] acting in bad faith,” 813 F. 3d 1233, 1249—a temporal, not causal, limitation. A sanctioning court must determine which fees were incurred because of, and solely because of, the misconduct at issue, and no such finding lies behind the $2.7 million award made and affirmed below. Nor is this Court inclined to fill in the gap, as the Haegers urge. As an initial matter, the Haegers have not shown that this litigation would have settled as soon as Goodyear divulged the heat-test results (a showing that would justify an all-fees award from the moment Goodyear was supposed to disclose). Further, they cannot demonstrate that Goodyear’s non-disclosure so permeated the suit as to make that misconduct a but-for cause of every subsequent legal expense, totaling the full $2.7 million.”

“Although the District Court considered causation in arriving at its back-up award of $2 million, it is unclear whether its understanding of that requirement corresponds to the appropriate standard—an uncertainty pointing toward throwing out the fee award and instructing the trial court to consider the matter anew. However, the Haegers contend that Goodyear has waived any ability to challenge the contingent award since the $2 million sum reflects Goodyear’s own submission that only about $700,000 of the fees sought would have been incurred regardless of the company’s behavior. The Court of Appeals did not address that issue, and this Court declines to decide it in the first instance. The possibility of waiver should therefore be the initial order of business on remand.”

The opinion held that “(w)hen a federal court exercises its inherent authority to sanction bad-faith conduct by ordering a litigant to pay the other side’s legal fees, the award is limited to the fees the innocent party incurred solely because of the misconduct—or put another way, to the fees that party would not have incurred but for the bad faith.”  The case was reversed and remanded.

Bottom line: This U.S. Supreme Court opinion is important since it addresses and resolves (at least in the federal courts) the question of whether a court exercising its inherent authority to sanction bad faith misconduct by awarding fees must limit the fees to those incurred as a direct result of the lawyer’s misconduct.  The opinion found in the affirmative and that the fees awarded must be shown to have been incurred solely as a result of the misconduct.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

[email protected]

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