Library of Congress v. Shaw

PETITIONER: Library of Congress
LOCATION: Court in Ouachita County

DOCKET NO.: 85-54
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 478 US 310 (1986)
ARGUED: Feb 24, 1986
DECIDED: Jul 01, 1986

Charles A. Rothfeld - on behalf of Petitioners
Charles Stephen Ralston - on behalf of Respondent

Facts of the case


Media for Library of Congress v. Shaw

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 24, 1986 in Library of Congress v. Shaw

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Rothfeld, I think you may proceed when you're ready.

Charles A. Rothfeld:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case involves one narrow question, whether Congress has waived the sovereign immunity of the United States to permit the addition of pre-judgment interest to Title VII attorneys' fee awards against the Federal Government.

In 1979, Respondent prevailed in his Title VII action against his employer, the Library of Congress.

The district court indicated at the time that it would award attorneys' fee to Respondent as the prevailing party, but it postponed entry of an order awarding those fees, deciding to await the decision of the Court of Appeals in a pending case, Copeland versus Marshall, which was expected to provide guidance on the calculation of a reasonable attorneys' fee.

The Court of Appeals handed down its decision in Copeland almost a year later, in September 1980.

An additional year then passed before the district court, in November of 1981, issued an order awarding fees to Respondent for work that his attorney had performed three years earlier, in 1978 and early 1979.

In the part of the order that is specifically at issue here, the Court then added 30 percent on top of the basic fee award, representing 10 percent for each year of delay to compensate Respondent's attorney for the time that had passed between the date that he completed his work and the time of the fee award.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed this award of what it acknowledged to be pre-judgment interest on Respondent's attorneys' fee.

In the Court of Appeals' view, the Title VII attorneys' fee provision specifically waives that aspect of the Government's sovereign immunity that traditionally has shielded the United States from liability for interest.

The question is this case is whether that judgment was correct.

In our view, this issue is flatly resolved by the application of one of the oldest and most firmly settled principles covering the resolution of claims against the United States, what Judge Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion aptly called the no interest rule.

As it has consistently been applied, this no interest rule provides that, even when Congress has explicitly waived the sovereign immunity of the United States and provided for the recovery of substantive claims against the Federal Government, interest cannot be awarded on top of those claims unless Congress in addition affirmatively considered the interest question and expressly indicated that interest should be available.

It has never been considered enough that the statutory language could be read to support an award of interest or that making interest available might be consistent with the statutory purpose.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Rothfeld, if there were private litigants involved in a case like this, so we didn't have the Federal Government issue, if some form of pre-judgment interest were sought as against a private defendant employer, would it be payable as part of attorneys' fee, or as a part of damages in general, or how?

What's the theory of the recovery against the private litigant, do you think?

Charles A. Rothfeld:

Pre-judgment interest on the attorneys' fee award would be characterized, I think, either as a component of that award... pre-judgment interest I think is generally viewed as a part of the damages and is generally termed pre-judgment interest on the damages.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

So if it were a private defendant, in your view then it would be a part of attorneys' fee or costs in any event?

Charles A. Rothfeld:

Well, it would--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Is that right?

Charles A. Rothfeld:

--It would be a part of the attorneys' fee.

It would be interest... it's somewhat complicated, because the Title VII attorneys' fee provision defines the attorneys' fee as a part of the costs, and interest is generally not... pre-judgment interest is generally not awarded on costs.

But in our view, the pre-judgment interest would be awarded on the attorneys' fee, which would then be awarded as an element of the costs.

William H. Rehnquist:

Is it conceded all around that in the case of a private defendant pre-judgment interest can be recovered on attorneys' fees?

Charles A. Rothfeld:

We acknowledge that a district court can exercise its discretion to award pre-judgment interest on attorneys' fee in private sector litigation.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

As part of the attorneys' fee?

Charles A. Rothfeld:

As a part of the attorneys' fee, that's correct.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Not as a part of damages?

Charles A. Rothfeld:

That's correct, not as a part of the substantive back pay award, for example, that a plaintiff might be entitled to get.

So what we think is determinative here is this no interest rule which applies specifically to suits against the Federal Government, the sovereign immunity rule.