Sebelius v. Cloer

PETITIONER: Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services
RESPONDENT: Melissa Cloer, M.D.
LOCATION: University of Missouri Student Health Center

DOCKET NO.: 12-236
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

CITATION: 569 US (2013)
GRANTED: Nov 20, 2012
ARGUED: Mar 19, 2013
DECIDED: May 20, 2013

ADVOCATES:
Benjamin J. Horwich - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner
Robert T. Fishman - for the respondent

Facts of the case

While a student at the University of Missouri, Dr. Melissa Cloer was vaccinated for Hepatitis B in 1996 and 1997. Soon after, she began developing symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). Several years later, Dr. Cloer learned about a possible connection between the vaccine and MS. Dr Cloer sued under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 (the Act). The Chief Special Master denied her claim as untimely because she brought it more than 36 months after the onset of symptoms. The Court of Federal Claims affirmed. Dr. Cloer appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed. The Federal Circuit granted the government's petition for rehearing and held that the Act's statute of limitations can be paused in certain circumstances, but Dr. Cloer's case did not meet the requirements. Her claims were again dismissed as untimely, but she filed a petition for attorney fees and costs incurred in the appeal. The Act provides that a claimant may recover attorney fees in connection with any proceeding under the Act brought in good faith with a reasonable basis for the claim even if the claimant does not win the case. The Federal Circuit held that Dr. Cloer was entitled to attorney fees if her claim was brought in good faith with a reasonable basis. The court remanded the case with instructions to decide those issues

Question

Can a person whose petition under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program is dismissed as untimely recover from the United States an award of attorneys' fees and costs?

Media for Sebelius v. Cloer

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 19, 2013 in Sebelius v. Cloer

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 20, 2013 in Sebelius v. Cloer

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Sotomayor has our opinion this morning in case 12-236, Sebelius versus Cloer, which I will read for her in her absence.

This case concerns whether attorney's fees maybe awarded on an untimely petition for compensation under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, what we call the NCVIA.

If the petition was brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis, the NCVIA establishes a no-fault compensation program for those injured by a vaccine.

Parties who seek compensation under the NCVIA must file a petition including specified medical documentation with the clerk of the Court of Federal Claims.

This petition is then adjudicated by a special master who determines among other things whether the petition was filed within the NCVIA's 36-month limitations period and whether compensation should be paid out.

While attorneys who provide services in connection with the petition may not charge a fee for their work, the NCVIA provides for an award of attorney's fees for successful petitions and for those unsuccessful petitions brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis.

In 1997, after receiving her third Hepatitis B vaccine, respondent Melissa Cloer began to experience symptoms that eventually lead to a multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 2003.

She filed a claim for compensation under the NCVIA in 2005 after she learned of a link between Hepatitis B vaccine and multiple sclerosis.

The Special Master assigned to her petition determined that it was untimely for appeal.

The en banc Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed that Cloer's petition was untimely.

Cloer then moved for an award of attorney's fees.

The government opposed her motion.

The en banc Federal Circuit agreed with Cloer that even though her petition was untimely, it could qualify for an award of attorney's fees if it was brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis.

We granted the government's petition for certiorari and now affirm.

The NCVIA's fees provision ties eligibility for an award for attorney's fees to a proceeding on “A petition filed under Section 300 aa-11 of Title XLII of the United States Code.

And for its part, Section 300 aa-11 requires that a petition be filed with the clerk of the court to commence a proceeding for compensation.

Nothing in either section suggests that the reason for the subsequent dismissal of a petition, such as untimeliness, nullifies the initial filing.

As the term filed is commonly understood, an application is filed when it is delivered to and accepted by the appropriate court officer for placement into the official record.

So, once an NCVIA petition is delivered and accepted by the clerk of the court, it is filed for the purposes of the act and eligible for an award of attorney's fees even if untimely so long as it was brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis.

The government's contrary argument that the NCVIA's 36-month limitations period is a statutory prerequisite to the filing of a petition lacks textual support.

Neither Section §300aa-11 nor the fees provision references this limitations provision.

And in order to adopt the government's argument, we would have to conclude that a petition filed out of time is a petition that was never filed at all.

Such a result is contrary to the common understanding of the term filed and the text of the NCVIA itself.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is affirmed.

Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas have joined the opinion as to all but Part II-B.

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