Independent Federation of Flight Attendants v. Zipes

Decision Date22 June 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-608,88-608
Citation105 L.Ed.2d 639,491 U.S. 754,109 S.Ct. 2732
PartiesINDEPENDENT FEDERATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS, Petitioner v. Anne B. ZIPES et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

After protracted litigation, respondents, a class of female flight attendants alleging that Trans World Airlines' policy of dismissing flight attendants who became mothers constituted sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, entered into a settlement agreement with TWA in which the airline agreed, inter alia, to credit class members with full company and union "competitive" seniority. At this point, petitioner, the collective-bargaining agent for TWA flight attendants, intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of incumbent flight attendants who would be adversely affected by the conferral of the seniority, challenging the settlement agreement on the grounds that (1) the court lacked jurisdiction to award equitable relief to one of the subclasses of respondents, and (2) the terms of the settlement would violate the existing collective-bargaining agreement. After this challenge was rejected, respondents petitioned the District Court for an award of attorney's fees against petitioner under § 706(k) of the Act. The court awarded fees against petitioner, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: District courts may award Title VII attorney's fees against those who are not charged with Title VII violations but intervene to protect their own rights only where the intervention is frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation. Assessing fees against blameless intervenors is not essential to § 706(k)'s central purpose of providing victims of wrongful discrimination an incentive to file suit. The prospect of uncompensated fees in litigation against such persons exists in any event, since they may choose to attack the decree collaterally instead of intervening—an undesirable result that the rule respondents urge would foster. While petitioner's advocacy of its members' bargained-for rights was not the specific type of conduct § 706(k) was intended to encourage, neither was it conduct that the statute aimed to deter. Pp. 758-766.

846 F.2d 434 (CA 7 1988), reve sed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 766. MARSHALL J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 770. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Steven A. Fehr, for petitioner.

Aram A. Hartunian, Chicago, Ill., for respondents.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 706(k) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k), provides in relevant part that a "court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the [Equal Employment Opportunity] Commission or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." In this case we must determine under what circumstances § 706(k) permits a court to award attorney's fees against intervenors who have not been found to have violated the Civil Rights Act or any other federal law.

I

This controversy began in 1970 when respondents, female flight attendants of Trans World Airlines, brought this class action against TWA claiming that its policy of terminating flight attendants who became mothers constituted sex discrimination that violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Respondents were represented by petitioner's predecessor union, the Air Line Stew- ards and Stewardesses Association (ALSSA). Soon after the suit was filed, TWA abandoned the challenged policy and entered into a settlement agreement with ALSSA. This agreement was approved by the District Court, but class members dissatisfied with certain of its terms appealed. Discerning a potential conflict between ALSSA's obligations to respondents and its obligations to incumbent flight attendants, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's judgment and ordered that ALSSA be replaced as the representative of respondents' class. Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Assn., Local 550, TWU, AFL-CIO v. American Air Lines, Inc., 490 F.2d 636, 643 (CA7 1973). On remand the District Court granted summary judgment to respondents on the merits. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's determination that TWA's policy violated Title VII. In re Consolidated Pretrial Proceedings in Airline Cases, 582 F.2d 1142, 1144 (CA7 1978). However, holding that the timely filing of charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit in federal court, the court went on to find that over 90% of the respondents' claims were on that ground jurisdictionally barred. Id., at 1149-1150. Both parties filed petitions for certiorari; at their request we deferred consideration of the petitions pending the outcome of ongoing settlement negotiations. Sub nom. Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 442 U.S. 916, 99 S.Ct. 2834, 61 L.Ed.2d 282 (1979). The parties again reached a settlement, in which TWA agreed to establish a $3 million fund to benefit all class members and to credit class members with full company and union "competitive" seniority from the date of termination.1 At this point petitioner, which had replaced ALSSA as the collective-bargaining agent for TWA's flight attendants, sought permission to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of incumbent flight attendants not affected by the challenged TWA policy and flight attendants hired since TWA's termination of respondents' employment. Petitioner objected to the proposed settlement on two grounds: first, that the District Court lacked jurisdictio to approve equitable relief for the time-barred respondents (designated by the District Court as "Subclass B"); second, that reinstatement of respondents with full retroactive "competitive" seniority would violate the collective-bargaining agreement between petitioner's members and TWA. The District Court permitted petitioner's intervention but rejected its objections, approving the settlement in all respects. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Assn., Local 550 v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 630 F.2d 1164 (CA7 1980). Petitioner then filed a petition for certiorari, raising essentially the same objections to the settlement agreement that it had pressed in the two lower courts. This Court granted the petition and consolidated it with the earlier petition filed by respondents, consideration of which had been deferred. In Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 393, 102 S.Ct. 1127, 1132, 71 L.Ed.2d 234 (1982), we agreed with respondents that the timeliness requirement of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(c), was not jurisdictional and thus that the District Court had jurisdiction to approve the settlement even as to members of Subclass B. We also rejected petitioner's second challenge to the settlement agreement, concluding that reinstatement of all respondents with full competitive seniority was a remedy authorized by Title VII and appropriate in the circumstances of the case. 455 U.S., at 398-400, 102 S.Ct., at 1135-1136.

To come, finally, to the aspect of this lengthy litigation giving rise to the issues now before us: Respondents' attorneys petitioned the District Court for an award of attorney's fees against petitioner under § 706(k) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k). The District Court held that "[u]nsuccessful Title VII union intervenors are, like unsuccessful Title VII defendants, consistently held responsible for attorneys' fees," Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Assn., Local 550, TWU, AFL-CIO v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 640 F.Supp. 861, 867 (ND Ill.1986), and thus awarded respondents a total of $180,915.84 in fees against petitioner—in addition to approximately $1.25 million it had earlier awarded against TWA from the settlement fund. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed. Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 846 F.2d 434 (1988). We granted the union's petition for certiorari, 488 U.S. 1029, 109 S.Ct. 835, 102 L.Ed.2d 968 (1989).

II

In Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 44 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975), this Court reaffirmed what has come to be known as the "American Rule." Put simply, "[i]n the United States, the prevailing litigant is ordinarily not entitled to collect a reasonable attorneys' fee from the loser." Id., at 247, 95 S.Ct., at 1616. At issue in this case is one of the congressionally created exceptions to that rule. As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub.L. 88-352, Tit. VII, 78 Stat. 253, Congress enacted § 706(k), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(k), which provides that a federal district court "in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the [EEOC] or the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee." Although the text of the provision does not specify any limits upon the district courts' discretion to allow or disallow fees, in a system of laws discretion is rarely without limits. In the case of § 706(k) and other federal fee-shifting statutes,2 just as in the case of discretion regarding appropriate remedies, we have found limits in "the large objectives" of the relevant Act, Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405, 416, 95 S.Ct. 2362, 2371, 45 L.Ed.2d 280 (1975), which embrace certain "equitable considerations," Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 418, 98 S.Ct. 694, 698, 54 L.Ed.2d 648 (1978). Thus, in Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 402, 88 S.Ct. 964, 966, 19 L.Ed.2d 1263 (1968), we held that under § 20 (b) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a-3(b), a prevailing plaintiff should "ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." We thought this constraint...

To continue reading

Request your trial
240 cases
  • Personhuballah v. Alcorn
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia
    • March 3, 2017
    ...fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 ? The answer turns on whether this case is controlled by Independent Federation of Flight Attendants v. Zipes , 491 U.S. 754, 109 S.Ct. 2732, 105 L.Ed.2d 639 (1989), or whether it is instead guided by the cases that have distinguished Zipes in the 27 years si......
  • BMG Rights Mgmt. (US) LLC v. Cox Commc'ns, Inc., Civil No. 1:14–cv–1611
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia
    • February 14, 2017
    ...statutes' similar language is 'a strong indication' that they are to be interpreted alike." Indep. Fed'n of Flight Attendants v. Zipes , 491 U.S. 754, 759, 109 S.Ct. 2732, 105 L.Ed.2d 639 (1989). The fee inquiry is also materially equivalent for contract-based attorney's fees petitions, whi......
  • Kenny A. ex rel. Winn v. Perdue, No. 06-15514.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • November 5, 2008
    ...federal fee-shifting statutes]." Dague, 505 U.S. at 562, 112 S.Ct. at 2641; see also Indep. Fed'n of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 758 n. 2, 109 S.Ct. 2732, 2735 n. 2, 105 L.Ed.2d 639 (1989) ("[F]ee-shifting statutes' similar language is `a strong indication' that they are to be......
  • Schultz v. Amick
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa
    • February 13, 1997
    ...2321, 110 L.Ed.2d 134 (1990) (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437, 103 S.Ct. at 1941); Independent Fed'n of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 766, 109 S.Ct. 2732, 2739, 105 L.Ed.2d 639 (1989) (quoting Hensley); Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 563, 108 S.Ct. 2541, 2549, 101 L.Ed.2d 4......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
7 books & journal articles
  • Chapter 10
    • United States
    • Full Court Press Alternative Dispute Resolution in the Work Place
    • Invalid date
    .... 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq.[191] . ADEA § 7(b), 29 U.S.C. § 626(b).[192] . Independent Federation of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 109 S. Ct. 2732, 2735-2736, 105 L. Ed. 2d 639, 50 F.E.P. Cases 47 (1989).[193] . For a detailed discussion of attorney’s fees under Title VII, see So......
  • Chapter §20.05 Enhanced Damages and Willful Infringement
    • United States
    • Full Court Press Mueller on Patent Law Volume II: Patent Enforcement Title CHAPTER 20 Remedies for Patent Infringement
    • Invalid date
    ...without limits," even when the statute "does not specify any limits upon the district courts' discretion." Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 758, 109 S.Ct. 2732, 105 L.Ed.2d 639 (1989). "[A] motion to a court's discretion is a motion, not to its inclination, but to its judgment; and......
  • Justice Antonin Scalia, Constitutional Discourse, and the Legalistic State
    • United States
    • Sage Political Research Quarterly No. 44-4, December 1991
    • December 1, 1991
    ...773 F.2d 1325 (D.C. Cir. 1985). In re Sealed Case, 801 F.2d 1379 (D.C. Cir. 1986).Independent Federation of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 109 S. Ct. 2732 (1989). 1033 International Brotherhood of Teamsters v. National Mediation Board, 712 F.2d 1495 (D.C. Cir. 1983). Interstate Commerce Commis......
  • Chapter 11
    • United States
    • Full Court Press Alternative Dispute Resolution in the Work Place
    • Invalid date
    ...and costs. Nevertheless, the employee may still incur considerable costs.[34] . Independent Federation of Flight Attendants v. Zipes, 491 U.S. 754, 109 S. Ct. 2732, 2735-2736, 105 L. Ed. 2d 639 (1989); Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 422, 98 S. Ct. 694, 54 L. Ed. 2d 648 (1......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT