The familiar "American rule" holds that a prevailing party generally cannot recover its attorney's fees from the losing party in the absence of a statute or contract provision specifically authorizing an award of such fees. Jurisdictions are divided on the issue of whether a party can recover its attorney's fees as damages, rather than costs, for the breach of a covenant not to sue the other party. In those jurisdictions that have not permitted attorney's fees to be awarded as damages, courts have reasoned that the contract containing the covenant not to sue can itself provide for attorney's fees in the event of its breach if that is the parties' intention. See Artvale, Inc. v. Rugby Fabrics Corp., 363 F.2d 1002, 1008 (2d Cir. 1966) ("Certainly it is not beyond the powers of a lawyer to draw a covenant not to sue in such terms as to make clear that any breach will entail liability for damages, including the most certain of all—defendant's litigation expense."). By contrast, other courts have determined that the American rule does not apply in "those cases in which the attorney fees are not awarded to the successful litigant in the case at hand, but rather are the subject of the law suit itself." Zuniga v. United Can Co., 812 F.2d 443, 455 (9th Cir. 1987). Virginia recently adopted the latter view.Read More
Laches is "a defense developed by courts of equity to protect defendants against unreasonable, prejudicial delay in commencing suit." SCA Hygiene Prods. Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Prods., LLC, 137 S. Ct. 954, 960 (2017) (internal quotation marks omitted). It is frequently said, however, that laches cannot be invoked to bar legal relief in the face of an express statute of limitations enacted by Congress. Id. at 959. But that is exactly what happened in Zuckerman v. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 928 F.3d 186 (2d Cir. 2019), cert. denied, 140 S. Ct. 1269 (2020).
In Zuckerman, the plaintiff, Laurel Zuckerman, brought suit to recover a painting—"The Actor" by Pablo Picasso—that had been owned by her great-granduncle and aunt, the Leffmanns. The Leffmanns were German Jews who were forced to flee the country in 1937. They arranged for the painting to be held by a Swiss acquaintance, who sold the painting in 1938 to raise funds for the Leffmanns to relocate to Brazil. The painting was eventually donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the "Met") in New York in 1952, where it still resides.Read More
Based on the exceptional circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, many state and federal courts have entered general orders altering deadlines for a wide variety of matters, including deadlines for filing appeals, the most notable example being the U.S. Supreme Court's extending the period to seek review of a lower court decision by writ of certiorari from 90 to 150 days. Counsel should be aware, however, that in the absence of an order of general applicability, deadlines will not be extended without a specific order from the court in a particular case. To the contrary, judges are loath to allow "all litigation to grind to a halt in many cases," as "allowing that to happen will only exacerbate, in many cases, the detrimental effects of this crisis." Horning v. Resolve Marine Group, No. 19-60899-CIV, 2020 WL 1540326, at *1 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020) (Scola, J.).Read More
Practitioners in federal court are by now aware of the revolution in federal pleading fashioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), which are often referred to jointly using the portmanteau "Twiqbal." Under the Twiqbal analysis, a district court considering the legal sufficiency of a complaint on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim initially separates factual allegations, which are still entitled to the presumption of truth, from legal conclusions (such as "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action"), which are not. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The court then examines just the factual allegations to determine whether they state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Id. Determining whether a claim is plausible is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 679.Read More
In a decision with far-reaching implications in the commercial world, the Virginia Supreme Court has decided that contractual waivers of the right to plead the statute of limitations that do not meet specified statutory criteria are unenforceable under Virginia law. See Radiance Capital Receivables Fourteen, LLC v. Foster, ___ Va. ___, 833 S.E.2d 867 (2019), available at http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opnscvwp/1180678.pdf. The statute in question provides that unless the failure to enforce a promise not to plead the statute of limitations would operate as a fraud on the promisee, a written promise not to plead the statute of limitations is valid and enforceable only "when (i) it is made to avoid or defer litigation pending settlement of any case, (ii) it is not made contemporaneously with any other contract, and (iii) it is made for an additional term not longer than the applicable limitations period." Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-232(A).Read More
Paul Ferrer—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
Federal courts may be inundated with frivolous pleadings filed by prisoners or other claimants proceeding in forma pauperis. But the courts have powerful statutory weapons for dealing with such pleadings and dismissing them at the earliest stage of a proceeding, if warranted. In fact, federal courts are specifically required to screen prisoner actions and dismiss them if they fail to pass muster. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.
Section 1915A affirmatively requires the district court to review, before docketing if feasible or as soon as practicable after docketing, every civil complaint in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. Id. § 1915A(a). After reviewing the complaint, the court must either identify any cognizable claims or dismiss all or part of the complaint if it is “frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Id. § 1915A(b)(1). Another federal statute similarly requires a district court to dismiss any proceeding brought in forma pauperis if the court determines, “at any time,” that the action is “frivolous or malicious” or “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.” Id. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i), (ii).Read More
In a putative class action against Facebook, a federal district court in California has determined that "[i]ntrusion on privacy alone can be a concrete injury" for purposes of establishing standing to bring suit in federal court. Patel v. Facebook Inc., 290 F. Supp. 3d 948, 954 (N.D. Cal. 2018). In reaching that conclusion, the court applied the concreteness analysis laid out by Justice Alito in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016).
The judicial power of the United States resides in the federal courts and extends only to "Cases" and "Controversies." U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. Standing to sue is a doctrine "rooted in the traditional understanding of a case or controversy," and limits the category of litigants who can maintain an action in federal court. Spokeo, 136 S. Ct. at 1547. To have standing, a plaintiff must plead and prove three elements: (1) an injury in fact that is (2) fairly traceable to the defendant's conduct and (3) likely to be redressed by a judicial decision in the plaintiff's favor. Id. The first and foremost of these three elements is injury in fact, which requires the plaintiff to show that he or she suffered an invasion of a "concrete" and "particularized" legal interest. Id. at 1548.Read More
We have written frequently in the Lawletter about the revolution in federal pleading practice occasioned by the Supreme Court’s decisions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Under the new standard, a claim is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (or a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c)) only when, accepting as true the facts alleged in the complaint but not any legal conclusions, the claim has “facial plausibility,” that is, it allows the court “to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570 (the plaintiff must allege enough by way of factual content to “nudge” her claim “across the line from conceivable to plausible”). This standard requires the plaintiff to include more facts in her complaint than were necessary before the dawn of the Twombly/Iqbal era.Read More
Laches is "'a defense developed by courts of equity' to protect defendants against 'unreasonable, prejudicial delay in commencing suit.'" SCA Hygiene Prods. Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Prods., LLC, 137 S. Ct. 954, 960 (2017) (quoting Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1962, 1967, 1973 (2014)). It is a familiar statement of the law that laches generally does not apply when the statute of limitations applicable to a legal claim has not run. But many state courts continue to indicate that, in some circumstances, "laches may bar a legal claim even if the statutory period of limitations has not yet expired." Tenneco Inc. v. Amerisure Mut. Ins. Co., 281 Mich. App. 429, 456-57, 761 N.W.2d 846, 863-64 (2008); see also Veysey v. Nelson, 2017 UT App 77, ¶ 7, 397 P.3d 846, 848 ("[B]ecause laches may apply in situations where the statute of limitations has not yet run, the existence of a statute of limitations does not … automatically preclude application of the laches doctrine."), cert. denied, 400 P.3d 1046 (Utah 2017); Bldg. & Constr. Trades Council of N. Nev. v. State ex rel. Pub. Works Bd., 108 Nev. 605, 611, 836 P.2d 633, 637 (1992) ("Especially strong circumstances must exist . . . to sustain a defense of laches when the statute of limitations has not run."). However, that no longer appears to be the case in federal court, at least with respect to a federal claim as to which Congress has expressly supplied a statute of limitations.
In Petrella, the U.S. Supreme Court held that laches cannot defeat a damages claim brought within the three-year period prescribed by the Copyright Act's statute of limitations. 134 S. Ct. at 1972-75 (applying 17 U.S.C. § 507(b) (requiring a copyright holder claiming infringement to file suit "within three years after the claim accrued")); see also SCA Hygiene, 137 S. Ct. at 961 ("We saw in this language a congressional judgment that a claim filed within three years of accrual cannot be dismissed on timeliness grounds."). In so holding, the Court spoke in very broad terms: "[I]n the face of a statute of limitations enacted by Congress, laches cannot be invoked to bar legal relief." Petrella, 134 S. Ct. at 1974. Petrella's holding rested on both separation-of-powers principles and the traditional role of laches in equity. SinceRead More
Rule 4(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure establishes three mechanisms for serving an individual in a foreign country. First, service may be had "by any internationally agreed means of service that is reasonably calculated to give notice, such as those authorized by the Hague Convention." Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(f)(1). The Hague Convention is the standard method for serving an individual in a foreign country, but it does not preempt all other methods of service on individuals in another signatory nation. See 4B Charles A. Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 1134 (4th ed. & Westlaw updated through Apr. 2017). Rather, all three methods of service under Rule 4(f) are "on equal footing," and a plaintiff need not attempt service by any one method before resorting to another. Rio Props., Inc. v. Rio Int'l Interlink, 284 F.3d 1007, 1015-16 (9th Cir. 2002). Second, if there is no internationally agreed means, or if an international agreement allows but does not specify other means, then service may be had "by a method that is reasonably calculated to give notice," including service "as prescribed by the foreign country's law for service in that country in an action in its courts of general jurisdiction," or by delivering a copy of the summons and complaint to the individual personally, unless that method is prohibited by the foreign country's law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(f)(2)(A), (C). Third, an individual may be served in a foreign country "by other means not prohibited by international agreement, as the court orders." Id. R. 4(f)(3).Read More