The U.S. Supreme Court held on Tuesday that legal fee awards resulting from acts of bad faith in litigation must be causally linked to the underlying misconduct.
In a unanimous 13-page opinion, Justice Elena Kagan reversed a $2.7 million fee award against the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. finding that sanctions in civil cases “must be compensatory rather than punitive in nature.” The upper end of fee award sanctions, Kagan wrote, should be “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.”
Goodyear’s case drew amicus support from the American Bar Association and the National Association of Manufacturers. Both warned that failure to require a direct causal link between penalties and a litigant’s discovery abuses could lead to outsized and abusive sanctions awards.
Tuesday’s decision reverses a 2015 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that put Goodyear on the hook for all $2.7 million in legal fees incurred by Leroy, Donna, Barry, and Suzanne Haeger after an alleged discovery violation in their personal injury case. The Haegers claimed that faulty Goodyear tires caused a 2003 accident involving their motor home in which they all suffered serious injuries.
For years with the case pending at the trial court, the Haegers’ lawyer had asked the company to hand over all test results for the tire model in question. But only after the case settled pretrial in 2010 for an undisclosed sum did the Haegers’ lawyer learn from a newspaper article that Goodyear had disclosed test results in separate litigation that he’d never seen.
In response to a motion for sanctions. U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver in Phoenix issued an order in 2012 forcing Goodyear to pay its opponents legal fees and costs from the moment when she found Goodyear made its first dishonest discovery response. Although the judge acknowledged that sanctions are limited to fees caused by the misconduct in the “usual” case, she wrote that Goodyear’s sanctionable conduct rose “to a truly egregious level.”
A divided Ninth Circuit panel affirmed Silver’s finding that she could grant attorney’s fees incurred “during the time when” Goodyear was acting in bad faith. But in dissent, Circuit Judge Paul Watford wrote that his colleagues had mistakenly pointed to “a temporal limitation, not a causal one” to justify the sanction. “A sanctioning court must determine which fees were incurred because of, and solely because of, the misconduct at issue (however serious, or concurrent with a lawyer’s work, it might have been),” wrote Watford, in a section quoted by Kagan.
Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part in Tuesday’s decision.
John Egbert of Jennings, Strouss & Salmon in Phoenix represented the plaintiffs. He didn’t immediately respond to an email message. Pierre Bergeron of Squire Patton Boggs, who represents Goodyear, declined to comment.