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A First Circuit Court of Appeals case headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, Ray Haluch Gravel v. Central Pension Fund, raises the question of whether a federal district court's ruling on the merits that leaves unresolved a request for contractual attorneys' fees is a final decision -- and thus appealable under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 -- or whether the decision is not appealable until the court has ruled on contractual attorneys' fees.
The parties: a Massachusetts landscaping company and a union. The amount in question: $350,000 in alleged unpaid union contributions and attorney fees. How did this modest dispute manage to get plucked from certiorari obscurity and wind up on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 docket?
Massive Circuit Split
As we all know, the more unwieldy the circuit split, the riper it is for Supreme Court review. The circuit split on the issues in Ray Haluch is both massive and massively confusing -- in other words, right up the High Court's alley.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals aligned with the Third, Fourth and Eighth Circuits and held that contractual attorneys' fees are sometimes collateral to the final decision.
That being said, the court determined that in this case, the fee award was wrapped up in the merits decision. As a result, even though the union didn't appeal until more than 30 days after the district court's judgment on its underlying contribution claim, its appeal was timely because it came within 30 days of the trial judge's ruling on fees.
But that's not the rule in five other circuits. The Eleventh Circuit ruled that contractual fees are never collateral to the merits. Meanwhile, the Second, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits hold that they always are.
Bringing Out the Big Guns
Back when they were small fries duking it out in district court and the First Circuit, both the landscaper and the union were represented by regional firms with fewer than 50 lawyers, reports Reuters.
But when the First Circuit highlighted the tremendous circuit split on the issue, the appellate court's decision effectively functioned as a dog whistle to elite U.S. Supreme Court practitioners -- even before the petition for certiorari was filed.
According to Alison Frankel of Reuters, these attorneys are exceptionally adept at sniffing out an issue that'll pique the justices' interest.
When it came time for cert filings, the usual suspects were at the helm: Mayer Brown for Ray Haluch and the University of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Clinic for the union.
This may not be a sexy constitutional issue. But the Court's decision will shed some (desperately needed) light on when to file appeals. Even the fancy lawyer folk managed to inject themselves into the mix -- so get excited.