Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation103 S.Ct. 3274,463 U.S. 680,77 L.Ed.2d 938
Docket NumberNo. 82-242,82-242
PartiesWilliam D. RUCKELSHAUS, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency, Petitioner, v. SIERRA CLUB et al
Decision Date01 July 1983
Syllabus

Section 307(f) of the Clean Air Act provides that in a proceeding for judicial review of an emission standard promulgated under the Act, the court may award reasonable attorney's fees "whenever it determines that such an award is appropriate." Respondents filed petitions in the Court of Appeals for review of the Environmental Protection Agency's standards limiting the emission of sulfur dioxide by coal-burning powerplants. The Court of Appeals rejected respondents' claims challenging the validity of the standards. Subsequently, the Court of Appeals granted respondents' request for attorney's fees incurred in the review proceedings, awarding a specified amount to each respondent.

Held: Absent some degree of success on the merits by the claimant, it is not "appropriate" for a federal court to award attorney's fees under § 307(f). Pp. 682-694.

(a) There is nothing in § 307(f) to indicate that Congress meant to abandon historic fee-shifting principles and intuitive notions of fairness when it enacted that section. Instead, it appears that the term "appropriate" modifies but does not completely reject the traditional rule that a fee claimant must "prevail" before it may recover attorney's fees. This result is the most reasonable interpretation of congressional intent. Pp. 682-686.

(b) The legislative history of § 307(f) does not support respondents' argument that the section was intended as a radical departure from the traditional rule. Moreover, the relation between § 307(f) and § 304(d), which like § 307(f) provides for the award of attorney's fees when "appropriate," refutes respondents' argument, since if that argument were accepted it would mean that in an unsuccessful suit brought under § 304 by a private citizen against a private business for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act the winning defendant could be required to pay the losing plaintiff's attorney's fees, a result which Congress certainly did not intend. Pp. 686-693.

217 U.S.App.D.C. 180, 672 F.2d 33 (1982), and 221 U.S.App.D.C. 450, 684 F.2d 972 (1982), reversed.

Kathryn A. Oberly, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Harold R. Tyler, Jr., New York City, for respondents.

Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1979, following a year of study and public comment, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promulgated standards limiting the emission of sulfur dioxide by coal-burning power plants. Both respondents in this case—the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Sierra Club—filed petitions for review of the agency's action in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. EDF argued that the standards promulgated by the EPA were tainted by the agency's ex parte contacts with representatives of private industry, while the Sierra Club contended that EPA lacked authority under the Clean Air Act to issue the type of standards that it did. In a lengthy opinion, the Court of Appeals rejected all the claims of both EDF and the Sierra Club. Sierra Club v. Costle, 657 F.2d 298 (CADC 1981).

Notwithstanding their lack of success on the merits, EDF and the Sierra Club filed a request for attorney's fees incurred in the Sierra Club action. They relied on § 307(f) of the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. § 7607(f), which permits the award of attorney's fees in certain proceedings "whenever [the court] determines that such an award is appropriate." Respondents argued that, despite their failure to obtain any of the relief they requested, it was "appropriate" for them to receive fees for their contributions to the goals of the Clean Air Act. The Court of Appeals agreed with respondents, ultimately awarding some $45,000 to Sierra Club and some $46,000 to EDF. Sierra Club v. Gorsuch, 672 F.2d 33 (CADC 1982); 684 F.2d 972 (CADC 1982). We granted certiorari, --- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 254, 74 L.Ed.2d 198 (1982), to consider the important question decided by the Court of Appeals.1

I

The question presented by this case is whether it is "appropriate," within the meaning of § 307(f) of the Clean Air Act, to award attorney's fees to a party that achieved no success on the merits of its claims. We conclude that the language of the section, read in the light of the historic principles of fee-shifting in this and other countries, requires the conclusion that some success on the merits be obtained before a party becomes eligible for a fee award under § 307(f).

A.

Section 307(f) provides only that:

"In any judicial proceeding under this section, the court may award costs of litigation (including reasonable attor- ney and expert witness fees) whenever it determines that such an award is appropriate." 42 U.S.C. § 7607(f) (emphasis added).

It is difficult to draw any meaningful guidance from § 307(f)'s use of the word "appropriate," which means only "specially suitable: fit, proper." Webster's Third International Dictionary.2 Obviously, in order to decide when fees should be awarded under § 307(f), a court first must decide what the award should be "specially suitable," "fit," or "proper" for. Section 307(f) alone does not begin to answer this question, and application of the provision thus requires reference to other sources, including fee-shifting rules developed in different contexts. As demonstrated below, inquiry into these sources shows that requiring a defendant, completely successful on all issues, to pay the unsuccessful plaintiff's legal fees would be a radical departure from long-standing fee-shifting principles adhered to in a wide range of contexts.

B

Our basic point of reference is the "American Rule," see Alyeska Pipeline Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240 247, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 1616, 44 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975) (emphasis added), under which even "the prevailing litigant is ordinarily not entitled to collect a reasonable attorneys' fee from the loser." It is clear that generations of American judges, lawyers, and legislators, with this rule as the point of departure, would regard it as quite "inappropriate" to award the "loser" an attorney's fee from the "prevailing litigant." Similarly, when Congress has chosen to depart from the American rule by statute, virtually every one of the more than 150 existing federal fee-shifting provisions predicates fee awards on some success by the claimant; while these statutes contain varying standards as to the precise degree of success necessary for an award of fees such as whether the fee claimant was the "prevailing party," 3 the "substantially prevailing" party,4 or "successful" 5—the consistent rule is that complete failure will not justify shifting fees from the losing party to the winning party. Also instructive is Congress' reaction to a draft of the Equal Access to Justice Act, which permitted shifting fees from losing parties to the Government, if "in the interest of justice," S. 2354, 95th Cong., 2d Sess. (1978). This provision, criticized by the Justice Department as a "radical" departure from traditional principles, was rejected by Congress.6 Finally, English courts have awarded counsel fees to successful litigants for 750 years, see Alyeska, supra, at 247, n. 18, 95 S.Ct., at 1616, n. 18, but they have never gone so far as to force a vindicated defendant to pay the plaintiff's legal expenses.

While the foregoing treatments of fee-shifting differ in many respects, they reflect one consistent, established rule: a successful party need not pay its unsuccessful adversary's fees. The uniform acceptance of this rule reflects, at least in part, intuitive notions of fairness to litigants. Put simply, ordinary conceptions of just returns reject the idea that a party who wrongly charges someone with violations of the law should be able to force that defendant to pay the costs of the wholly unsuccessful suit against it. Before we will conclude Congress abandoned this established principle that a successful party need not pay its unsuccessful adversary's fees—rooted as it is in intuitive notions of fairness and widely manifested in numerous different contexts—a clear showing that this result was intended is required.7

Also relevant in deciding whether to accept the reading of "appropriate" urged by respondents is the fact that § 307(f) affects fee awards against the United States, as well as against private individuals. Except to the extent it has waived its immunity, the Government is immune from claims for attorney's fees, Alyeska, supra, at 267-268, and n. 42, 95 S.Ct., at 1626, and n. 42. Waivers of immunity must be "construed strictly in favor of the sovereign," McMahon v. United States, 342 U.S. 25, 27, 72 S.Ct. 17, 19, 96 L.Ed. 268 (1951), and not "enlarge[d] . . . beyond what the language requires" Eastern Transp. Co. v. United States, 272 U.S. 675, 686, 47 S.Ct. 289, 291, 71 L.Ed. 472 (1927). In determining what sorts of fee awards are "appropriate," care must be taken not to "enlarge" § 307(f)'s waiver of immunity beyond what a fair reading of the language of the section requires.

Given all the foregoing, we fail to find in § 307(f) the requisite indication that Congress meant to abandon historic fee-shifting principles and intuitive notions of fairness when it enacted the section. Instead, we believe that the term "appropriate" modifies but does not completely reject the traditional rule that a fee claimant must "prevail" before it may recover attorney's fees. This result is the most reasonable interpretation of Congressional intent.

II

Respondents make relatively little effort to dispute much of the foregoing, devoting their principal attention to the legislative history of § 307(f). Respondents' arguments rest primarily on the following excerpt from the 1977 House Report on § 307(f): 8 "The committee bill also contains express authority for the courts...

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