Evans v. Jeff D.

PETITIONER: Evans
RESPONDENT: Jeff D.
LOCATION: Heath Residence

DOCKET NO.: 84-1288
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 475 US 717 (1986)
ARGUED: Nov 13, 1985
DECIDED: Apr 21, 1986

ADVOCATES:
James Thomas Jones - on behalf of the petitioners
Lawrence G. Wallace - on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae in support of petitioners
William T. Coleman, Jr. - on behalf of the respondents

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Evans v. Jeff D.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 13, 1985 in Evans v. Jeff D.

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in Evans against Jeff D., et al.--

Mr. Jones, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

James Thomas Jones:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, members of the Court, may it please the Court, I am here today to ask the Court's assistance in restoring a valuable bargaining procedure for both plaintiffs and defendants, a procedure which has been effectively denied to civil rights litigants in the Ninth Circuit by the lower court's decision.

That is the ability to negotiate attorneys' fees along with all other elements of settlement in trying to secure the resolution of civil rights actions.

This practical procedure which is taken for granted in almost all other civil actions and in civil rights cases outside of the Third and Ninth Circuits is essential to case settlement.

It produces a bottom line of settlement for the defendants, but it also can be a valuable bargaining chip for the plaintiffs.

In this case, the respondents waived counsel fees to obtain the benefit of a settlement which gave them, as the Ninth Circuit put it,

"more than the District Court during earlier settlement hearings had indicated it was willing to grant. "

However, after using the fee waiver as a bargaining chip, the respondent's attorney appealed the fee waiver and the denial without binding or even looking for an abuse of discretion on the part of the trial judge, the Court of Appeals peremptorily struck the fee waiver from the settlement agreement, and in the process imposed a rule which virtually banned simultaneous negotiations of merits and fees.

The underlying tone of the opinion seems to hint that defense counsel were engaged in conduct that was unseemly or unethical.

However, the record reflects that this was simply not the case.

Defense counsel were just doing their job within applicable ethical guidelines.

They were trying to settle the case in a manner which served their client agency's program goals, and at a bottom line cost which their client could live with.

Indeed, the trial judge specifically found that there has been no unethical conduct on the part of the parties.

We are here because we believe the Ninth Circuit adopted an unworkable approach which will discourage settlement of these important cases.

Further, the entire decision wan based on a faulty premise that special settlement rules apply to civil rights fee shifting cases.

This Court recently ruled in Merrick v. Chesny that no such special settlement rules exist, and therefore the lower court ruling must be reversed.

This type of case presents a unique situation, because both sides are generally interested in improving conditions for the plaintiff class.

That is the primary reason why the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare agreed to provide more relief than the trial judge had indicated that be was going to grant, but this willingness to provide additional relief was expressly conditioned on a waiver of attorneys' fees.

William H. Rehnquist:

General Jones, do you read the Ninth Circuit's opinion as being limited to class action situations where Rule 23 would apply?

James Thomas Jones:

Justice Rehnquist, I read it as being applicable to all situations, not only class action cases but all situations.

William H. Rehnquist:

What is the authority of the District Court to supervise the settlement of something that isn't a class action?

James Thomas Jones:

Well, under Rule 16, the judge or the parties can talk about settlement, pretrial conferences.

I think in that context if somebody is being unfairly put upon, or if there is unethical conduct, I think that the matter can be brought to the attention of the District Judge.

William H. Rehnquist:

I am sure it could be brought to the attention of the District Court.

The question is, what can the District Judge do about it if it is brought to his attention.

Supposing that A sues B in the United States District Court for the District of Idaho.

It is not a class action, and the parties before trial simply file a stipulation for dismissal of the case because it has been settled.

Does the District Court have any authority to review that or pass judgment on it?

James Thomas Jones:

I wouldn't think so, Your Honor.