Supreme Court Review: Justices Clarified Courts' Role on Sanctions and Attorney Fees


Linda S Mullenix

National Law Journal 25


Commentary and analysis of seven decisions from the Supreme Court, on its 1989-90 docket, dealing with various aspects of civil procedure and federal courts. The article discusses the Court’s opinions in Pavelic & LeFlore v. Marvel Entertainment Group; Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp.; U.S. Dept. of Labor v. Triplett; Venegas v. Mitchell; INS v. Jean; Spallone v. U.S.; and Missouri v. Jenkins.

In Pavelic, the Court announced that the individual lawyer who signs a pleading or paper is personally responsible for compliance with Rule11, rather than the lawyer’s partners or law firm. In Cooter, the court affirmed the abuse-of-discretion appellate standard of review of district court Rule 11 sanctions (rather than de novo review). In Triplett, the Court found scant evidence offered to challenge the Labor Department’s award of attorney fees under the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972; the evidence offered was insufficient to overcome the presumption of regularity and constitutionality of the program.

In Venegas, the Court unanimously approved contingent fee agreements between plaintiffs and their lawyers for amounts above any statutory award against defendants in civil rights cases. The Court held that §1988 does not interfere with the enforceability of a contingent fee contract but only controls what the losing defendant must pay, not what the prevailing party must pay his lawyer.

In INS v. Jean, the Court ruled that the government’s general interest in protecting the federal fisc is subordinate to the specific statutory goals of encouraging private parties to vindicate their rights and curbing excessive regulation and the unreasonable exercise of government authority.

In Spallone, a divided Court refused to permit a federal district judge to impose contempt sanctions on individual Yonkers city council members in order to enforce compliance with a prior consent decree concerning remedial housing in that city.

And in Missouri v. Jenkins, the Court concluded that a district court’s direct imposition of a property tax to effectuate court-ordered desegregation in Kansas City contravened principles of federal-state comity and therefore was invalid. The Court sustained an appellate court’s modification order directing the local Kansas City School District to levy its own taxes in support of the desegregation order.

Full Citation

Linda S. Mullenix, Supreme Court Review: Justices Clarified Courts' Role on Sanctions and Attorney Fees, National Law Journal, Sept. 10, 1990, at 25.