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Both sides want fee case to go on

Attorneys for both sides in a case the Supreme Court is due to hear on March 22 argued on Friday that the death of one of the individuals in the case should not prevent the Justices from going forward and ruling on the attorneys’ fees issue that is at stake.  These were the responses to the Court’s request a week ago for new briefs discussing the effect of the death of a former police chief in Louisiana, a central figure in the case.

The Court had agreed to decide whether an award of attorneys’ fees is valid if it reimbursed one side in the case for all of its attorney costs, and not just those directly related to the claim that was found to justify a fee award.  The case is Fox v. Vice (docket 10-114), involving whether Ricky D. Fox must pay in excess of $50,000 in attorneys’ fees awarded to his adversaries in a civil rights case, Vinson, La., Police Chief Billy Ray Vice (who died in August, before the case was granted), and the town of Vinson.

Although both sides agreed that the case should proceed, and both sides agreed that Vice’s estate should be allowed to enter the case, through his widow, Judy Ann Vice, they disagreed as to what the Court should do with part of the case if the estate is not substituted as a party.  Both agreed, though, that the case should not end because, at a minimum, there is still a dispute between Fox and the town of Vinson, which also was awarded attorneys’ fees from Fox.  That part of the case is undisturbed, the two sides told the Court.

Coincidentally, Fox, who brought his civil rights lawsuit against Vice when the two were rivals for the job of police chief when Vice held the post and Fox was running for it, has now become the police chief himself.  Thus, at a minimum, his attorneys’ fees dispute does not continue with the successor police chief — himself.

Fox’s lawyers filed a letter brief outlining his position, along with a sworn declaration describing contacts between the two sides’ lawyers over the impact of Chief Vice’s death.  The Vice family’s lawyers filed a brief outlining their position, along with a motion to substitute the estate for Chief Vice’s claim to fee recovery.

Under the fee award that Fox is contesting, Chief Vice was awarded recovery of $15,183 in attorneys’ fees and the town of Vinson separately was awarded $32,868 in fees — both because a federal court found that Fox’s civil rights claim was frivolous.  However, Fox had separate state law claims, and those were not treated as frivolous, yet, his appeal has argued, he is wrongly facing a duty to pay the full fees incurred by the Chief and by the town for every part of the litigation, not just the part found to be frivolous.

In their new filings, each side blamed the other for failing to substitute a party for Chief Vice after his death.  Both agreed though that, even though a deadline for substitution has passed, the Court should use its discretion and allow Mrs. Vice to substitute the estate for the $15,183 fee claim against Fox.

The sharpest disagreement between the two sides came over what the Court should do if it does not substitute the estate.  Fox’s lawyers urged the Court simply to “abate” the case so far as Chief Vice’s claim is concerned, thus wiping out the $15,183 claim against Fox.  The Vice family lawyers, however, said that the Court should simply dismiss Fox’s challenge to the fee award to the Chief.

Presumably, the Court will take into consideration the new filings when it hears the case later this month, and thus is not expected to dispose of the case in the meantime.

Cases: Fox v. Vice

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Both sides want fee case to go on, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 11, 2011, 3:41 PM),