Alyeska Pipeline Service Company v. Wilderness Society 8212 1977, No. 73

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtWHITE
Citation95 S.Ct. 1612,44 L.Ed.2d 141,421 U.S. 240
Docket NumberNo. 73
Decision Date12 May 1975
PartiesALYESKA PIPELINE SERVICE COMPANY, Petitioner, v. The WILDERNESS SOCIETY et al. —1977

421 U.S. 240
95 S.Ct. 1612
44 L.Ed.2d 141
ALYESKA PIPELINE SERVICE COMPANY, Petitioner,

v.

The WILDERNESS SOCIETY et al.

No. 73—1977.
Argued Jan. 22, 1975.
Decided May 12, 1975.

Syllabus

Under the 'America Rule' that attorneys' fees are not ordinarily recoverable by the prevailing litigant in federal litigation in the absence of statutory authorization, respondents, which had instituted litigation to prevent issuance of Government permits required for construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, cannot recover attorneys' fees from petitioner based on the 'private attorney general' approach erroneously approved by the Court of Appeals, since only Congress, not the courts, can authorize such an exception to the American rule. Pp. 247-271.

161 U.S.App.D.C. 446, 495 F.2d 1026, reversed.

Robert E. Jordan, III, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Dennis M. Flannery, Washington, D.C., for respondents.

Page 241

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This litigation was initiated by respondents Wilderness Society, Environmental Defense Fund, Inc., and Friends of the Earth in an attempt to prevent the issuance of permits by the Secretary of the Interior which were required for the construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The Court of Appeals awarded attorneys' fees to respondents against petitioner Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. based upon the court's equitable powers and the theory that respondents were entitled to fees because they were performing the services of a 'private attorney general.' Certiorari was granted, 419 U.S. 823, 95 S.Ct. 39, 42 L.Ed.2d 47 (1974), to determine whether this award of attorneys' fees was appropriate. We reverse.

I

A major oil field was discovered in the North Slope of Alaska in 1968.1 In June 1969, the oil companies constituting the consortium owning Alyeska2 submitted an

Page 242

application to the Department of the Interior for rights-of-way for a pipeline that would transport oil from the North Slope across land in Alaska owned by the United States,3 a major part of the transport system which would carry the oil to its ultimate markets in the lower 48 States. A special interdepartmental task force studied the proposal and reported to the President. Federal Task Force on Alaskan Oil Development: A Preliminary Report to the President (1969), in App. 78—89. An amended application was submitted in December 1969, which requested a 54-foot right-of-way, along with applications for 'special land use permits' asking for additional space alongside the right-of-way and for the construction of a road along one segment of the pipeline.4

Respondents brought this suit in March 1970, and sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the Secretary of the Interior on the grounds that he intended to issue the right-of-way and special land-use permits in violation of § 28 of the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, 41 Stat. 449, as amended, 30 U.S.C. § 185,5 and without

Page 243

compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), 83 Stat. 852, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq.6 On the basis of both the Mineral Leasing Act and the NEPA, the District Court granted a preliminary injunction against issuance of the right-of-way and permits. Wilderness Society v. Hickel, 325 F.Supp. 422 (DC 1970).

Subsequently the State of Alaska and petitioner Alyeska were allowed to intervene.7 On March 20, 1972, the Interior Department released a six-volume Environmental Impact Statement and a three-volume Economic

Page 244

and Security Analysis.8 After a period of time set aside for public comment, the Secretary announced that the requested permits would be granted to Alyeska. App. 105—138. Both the Mineral Leasing Act and the NEPA issues were at that point fully briefed and argued before the District Court. That court then decided to dissolve the preliminary injunction, to deny the permanent injunction, and to dismiss the complaint.9

Upon appeal, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed, basing its decision solely on the Mineral Leasing Act. 156 U.S.App.D.C. 121, 479 F.2d 842 (1973) (en banc). Finding that the NEPA issues were very complex and important, that deciding them was not necessary at that time since pipeline construction would be enjoined as a result of the violation of the Mineral Leasing Act, that they involved issues of fact still in dispute, and that it was desirable to expedite its decision as much as possible, the Court of Appeals declined to decide the merits of respondents' NEPA contentions which had been rejected by the District Court.10 Certiorari was denied here. 411 U.S. 917, 93 S.Ct. 1550, 36 L.Ed.2d 309 (1973).

Congress then enacted legislation which amended the Mineral Leasing Act to allow the granting of the permits sought by Alyeska11 and declared that no further action

Page 245

under the NEPA was necessary before construction of the pipeline could proceed.12

Congress then enacted legislation § 1651 et seq. (1970 ed., Supp. III).

With the merits of the litigation effectively terminated by this legislation, the Court of Appeals turned to the questions involved in respondents' request for an award of attorneys' fees.13 161 U.S.App.D.C. 446, 495 F.2d 1026 (1974) (en banc). Since there was no applicable statutory authorization for such an award, the court proceeded to consider whether the requested fee award fell within any of the exceptions to the general 'American rule' that the prevailing party may not recover attorneys' fees as costs or otherwise. The exception for an award against a party who had acted in bad faith was inapposite, since the position taken by the federal and state parties and Alyeska 'was manifestly reasonable and assumed in good faith . . ..' Id., at 449, 495 F.2d at 1029. Application of the 'common benefit' exception which spreads the cost of litigation to those persons benefiting from it would 'stretch it totally outside its basic rationale . . ..' Ibid.14 The Court of Appeals nevertheless held that respondents had acted to vindicate 'important statutory rights of all citizens . . .,' id., at 452, 495 F.2d, at 1032; had ensured that the governmental system functioned properly; and were entitled to attorneys' fees lest the great cost of litigation of this kind, particularly against well-financed defendants such as

Page 246

Alyeska, deter private parties desiring to see the laws protecting the environment properly enforced. Title 28 U.S.C. § 241215 was thought to bar taxing any attorneys' fees against the United States, and it was also deemed inappropriate to burden the State of Alaska with any part of the award.16 But Alyeska, the Court of Appeals held, could fairly be required to pay one-half of the full award to which respondents were entitled for having performed the functions of a private attorney general. Observing that '(t)he fee should represent the reasonable value of the services rendered, taking into account all the surrounding circumstances, including, but not limited to, the time and labor required on the case, the benefit to the public, the skill demanded by the novelty or complexity of the issues, and the incentive factor,' 161 U.S.App.D.C., at 456, 495 F.2d, at 1036, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the District Court for assessment of the dollar amount of the award.17

Page 247

II

In the United States, the prevailing litigant is ordinarily not entitled to collect a reasonable attorneys' fee from the loser. We are asked to fashion a far-reaching exception to this 'American Rule'; but having considered its origin and development, we are convinced that it would be inappropriate for the Judiciary, without legislative guidance, to reallocate the burdens of litigation in the manner and to the extent urged by respondents and approved by the Court of Appeals.

At common law, costs were not allowed; but for centuries in England there has been statutory authorization to award costs, including attorneys' fees. Although the matter is in the discretion of the court, counsel fees are regularly allowed to the prevailing party.18

During the first years of the federal-court system, Congress provided through legislation that the federal courts were to follow the practice with respect to awarding

Page 248

attorneys' fees of the courts of the States in which the federal courts were located,19 with the exception of district courts under admiralty and maritime jurisdiction

Page 249

which were to follow a specific fee schedule.20 Those statutes, by 1800, had either expired or been repealed.

In 1796, this Court appears to have ruled that the Judiciary itself would not create a general rule, independent of any statute, allowing awards of attorneys' fees in federal courts. In Arcambel v. Wiseman, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 306, 1 L.Ed. 613, the inclusion of attorneys' fees as damages21 was overturned on the ground that '(t)he general practice of the United States is in oposition (sic) to it; and even if that practice

Page 250

were not strictly correct in principle, it is entitled to the respect of the court, till it is changed, or modified, by statute.' This Court has consistently adhered to that early holding. See Day v. Woodworth, 13 How. 363, 14 L.Ed. 181 (1852); Oelrichs v. Spain, 15 Wall. 211, 21 L.Ed. 43 (1872); Flanders v. Tweed, 15 Wall. 450, 21 L.Ed. 203 (1873); Stewart v. Sonneborn, 98 U.S. 187, 25 L.Ed. 116, 40 L.Ed.2d 703 (1879); Fleischmann Distilling Corp. v. Maier Brewing Co., 386 U.S. 714, 717—713, 87 S.Ct. 1404, 18 L.Ed.2d 475 (1967); F.D. Rich Co., Inc. v. United States ex rel. Industrial Lumber Co., Inc., 417 U.S. 116, 126—131, 94 S.Ct. 2157, 2163—2166 (1974).

The practice after 1799 and until 1853 continued as before, that is, with the federal courts referring to the state rules governing awards of counsel fees, although the express legislative authorization for that practice had expired. 22 By legislation in 1842, Congress did give this...

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4300 practice notes
  • Maseda v. Honda Motor Co., Ltd., Nos. 87-5866
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • December 19, 1988
    ...diversity case, state law governs the availability of attorney's fees under an indemnity claim. Alyeska Pipeline Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240, 259 n. 31, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 1622-23 n. 31, 44 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975). Under Florida law, an indemnitee is entitled to indemnification not only fo......
  • Bliven v. Hunt, Docket No. 07-1146-cv.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • August 28, 2009
    ...entitled to recover legal fees incurred in the conduct of that litigation, see, e.g., Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 247, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 44 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975), numerous statutes allow—and sometimes require— the court to award reasonable attorneys' fees, ge......
  • Knutson v. Ag Processing, Inc., No. C01-3015-MWB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • July 28, 2003
    ...& Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 602, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855 (2001) (citing Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240, 247, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 44 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975)). Under this "American Rule," courts "follow `a general practice of not awarding fees to a prevailing ......
  • Skyline Potato Co. v. Hi-Land Potato Co., No. CIV 10-0698 JB/LAM
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • May 24, 2016
    ...887 F.Supp. 590, 594 (S.D.N.Y.1995) (Patterson, J.) (citing Alye s ka Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. at 257–59, 95 S.Ct. 1612 ).2. Law Regarding Attorney's Fees Under PACA."Although some courts have granted attorneys' fees in cases alleging a breach of PACA trust, thos......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
4298 cases
  • Maseda v. Honda Motor Co., Ltd., Nos. 87-5866
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • December 19, 1988
    ...diversity case, state law governs the availability of attorney's fees under an indemnity claim. Alyeska Pipeline Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240, 259 n. 31, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 1622-23 n. 31, 44 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975). Under Florida law, an indemnitee is entitled to indemnification not only fo......
  • Bliven v. Hunt, Docket No. 07-1146-cv.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • August 28, 2009
    ...entitled to recover legal fees incurred in the conduct of that litigation, see, e.g., Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 247, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 44 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975), numerous statutes allow—and sometimes require— the court to award reasonable attorneys' fees, ge......
  • Knutson v. Ag Processing, Inc., No. C01-3015-MWB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • July 28, 2003
    ...& Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 602, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855 (2001) (citing Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240, 247, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 44 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975)). Under this "American Rule," courts "follow `a general practice of not awarding fees to a prevailing ......
  • Skyline Potato Co. v. Hi-Land Potato Co., No. CIV 10-0698 JB/LAM
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
    • May 24, 2016
    ...887 F.Supp. 590, 594 (S.D.N.Y.1995) (Patterson, J.) (citing Alye s ka Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. at 257–59, 95 S.Ct. 1612 ).2. Law Regarding Attorney's Fees Under PACA."Although some courts have granted attorneys' fees in cases alleging a breach of PACA trust, thos......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
5 books & journal articles
  • Historical Perspectives on Environmental Management
    • United States
    • Practical Guide to Environmental Management. 11th Edition
    • August 10, 2011
    ...of attorneys fees and the statutes speciically allowing such fees at the time, see Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc’y, 421 U.S. 240, 5 ELR 20286 (1975). 10 prActicAL guide to environmentAL mAnAgement based effort to open up the regulatory process to others than regulated industr......
  • Fee-Shifting in Bankruptcy.
    • United States
    • American Bankruptcy Law Journal Vol. 95 Nbr. 4, December 2021
    • December 22, 2021
    ...award prevailing party attorney's fees). Prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc'y, 421 U.S. 240 (1975), American commentators urged the federal courts to abandon the American Rule in federal litigation generally. See, e.g. Gerald T. McLaughlin,......
  • Historical Perspectives on Environmental Management
    • United States
    • Practical Guide to Environmental Management. 10th Edition -
    • January 10, 2006
    ...of attorneys fees and the statutes specifically allowing such fees at the time, see Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v. Wilderness Soc’y, 421 U.S. 240, 5 ELR 20286 (1975). 8. Melnick, supra note 3, at 9. 9. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a party must be victorious on at least one substanti......
  • Funding and Facilitating Public Participation at FERC
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Reporter Nbr. 51-7, July 2021
    • July 1, 2021
    ...shift the costs of litigating to the losing party, it would fall under the rule of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society , 421 U.S. 240 (1975), and Turner v. Federal Communications Commission , 514 F.2d 1354 (D.C. Cir. 1975), which require a grant of “clear statutory power” for......
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