Final Judgments And Attorney’s Fees

Is a trial court judgment final, for the purpose of seeking appellate review, if all issues in a case have been resolved except the issue of attorney’s fees?  The United States Supreme Court is going to revisit that issue this term in Ray Haluch Gravel Co. v. Central Pension Fund. I say “revisit” because many of us thought that the Supreme Court had settled that issue long ago.

In two important cases in the 1980’s, the Supreme Court clarified the law in this confusing area.  In White v. New Hampshire Dept. of Employment Security, 455 U.S. 445 (1982), the Court said that, “regardless of when attorney’s fees are requested, the court’s decision of entitlement to fees . . . require[s] an inquiry separate from the decision on the merits – an inquiry that cannot even commence until one party has ‘prevailed.’”   

Confusion persisted after White, however, with lawyers and courts attempting to draw lines between attorney’s fee awards that were “integral” to a case, and awards that were “collateral” to the claim.  For example, an award of attorney’s fees pursuant to the terms of a contract might be considered integral, while an award of fees pursuant to a statute in a civil rights case might be considered collateral.  In the former situation, a judgment would not be final until the attorney’s fee issue had been resolved; in the later case, the finality of a judgment would not depend on resolution of the attorney’s fee question.

In Budinich v. Becton Dickinson & Co., 485 U.S. 196 (1988), the Supreme Court resolved this debate, or so I thought.  The Court opted for a bright-line rule that did not depend upon whether an attorney’s fee award was integral or collateral to the merits of a case.  Said the Court, a decision on the merits is a “final decision . . . whether or not there remains for adjudication a request for attorney’s fees attributable to the case.”

Recognizing the benefits of a bright-line rule, the Connecticut Supreme Court followed the holding of Budinich.  In Paranteau v. DeVita, 208 Conn. 515 (1988), Connecticut’s high court held that “a judgment on the merits is final for purposes of appeal even though the recoverability or amount of attorney’s fees for the litigation remains to be determined.”

Apparently, in the years since the United States Supreme Court decided Budinich, the circuit courts of appeal have divided over the question whether contractual attorney’s fees should be treated differently from statutory attorney’s fees.  The decision in Ray Haluch Gravel will resolve that split.  Depending on that decision, the state Supreme Court may have to revisit Paranteau v. DeVita as well.

One Comment on “Final Judgments And Attorney’s Fees”

  1. How does this ruling apply to family court cases, where judges routinely assign attorneys fees A(and often incorrectly) without a separate hearing into the financial issues?

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