U.S. SUPREME COURT

Sebelius v. Cloer

HEALTH LAW — Attorney Fee Recovery

New Jersey Law Journal

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Sebelius v. Cloer, No. 12-236; U.S. Supreme Court; opinion by Sotomayor, J.; decided May 20, 2013. On certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit,

The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 established a no-fault compensation system to stabilize the vaccine market and expedite compensation to injured parties. Bruesewitz v. Wyeth LLC, 562 U.S. —. Under the act, "[a] proceeding for compensation" is "initiated" by "service upon the Secretary" of the Department of Health and Human Services and "the filing of a petition containing" specified documentation with the clerk of the Court of Federal Claims, who then "immediately" forwards the petition for assignment to a special master. 42 U.S.C. § 300aa-11(a)(1). An attorney may not charge a fee for "services in connection with [such] a petition," § 300aa-15(e)(3), but a court may award attorney fees and costs "incurred [by a claimant] in any proceeding on" an unsuccessful "petition filed under section 300aa-11," if that petition "was brought in good faith and there was a reasonable basis for the claim for which the petition was brought," § 300aa-15(e)(1).

In 1997, shortly after receiving her third Hepatitis-B vaccine, respondent Cloer began to experience symptoms that eventually led to a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis in 2003. In 2004, she learned of a link between MS and the Hepatitis-B vaccine, and in 2005, she filed a claim for compensation under the NCVIA, alleging that the vaccine caused or exacerbated her MS. After reviewing the petition and its supporting documentation, the chief special master concluded that Cloer's claim was untimely because the act's 36-month limitations period began to run when she had her first MS symptoms in 1997. The Federal Circuit ultimately agreed that Cloer's petition was untimely. Cloer then sought attorney fees and costs (collectively, fees). The en banc Federal Circuit found that she was entitled to recover fees on her untimely petition.

Held: An untimely NCVIA petition may qualify for an award of attorney fees if it is filed in good faith and there is a reasonable basis for its claim. Pp. 6-13.

(a) As in any statutory construction case, this court proceeds from the understanding that "[u]nless otherwise defined, statutory terms are generally interpreted in accordance with their ordinary meaning." BP America Production Co. v. Burton, 549 U.S. 84, 91. Nothing in either the NCVIA's attorney fees provision, which ties eligibility to "any proceeding on such petition" and refers specifically to "a petition filed under section 300aa-11," or the referenced § 300aa-11 suggests that the reason for the subsequent dismissal of a petition, such as its 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." Artuz v. Bennett, 531 U.S. 4, 8. Applying this ordinary meaning to the text at issue, it is clear that an NCVIA petition delivered to the court clerk, forwarded for processing, and adjudicated in a proceeding before a special master is a "petition filed under section 300aa-11." So long as it was brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis, it is eligible for an award of attorney fees, even if it is ultimately unsuccessful. Had Congress intended otherwise, it could have easily limited fee awards to timely petitions.

The government's argument that the 36-month limitations period is a statutory prerequisite for filing lacks textual support. First, there is no cross-reference to the act's limitations provision in its fees provision, § 300aa-15(e), or the referenced § 300aa-11(a)(1). Second, reading the provision to provide that "no petition may be filed for compensation" late, as the government asks, would require the court to conclude that a petition like Cloer's, which was "filed" under that term's ordinary meaning but was later found to be untimely, was never filed at all. This court's inquiry ceases where, as here, "the statutory language is unambiguous and 'the statutory scheme is coherent and consistent.'" Barnhart v. Sigmon Coal Co., 534 U.S. 438, 450.

The government's contrary position is also inconsistent with the fees provision's purpose, which was to avoid "limit[ing] petitioners' ability to obtain qualified assistance" by making awards available for "non-prevailing, good-faith claims." H.R. Rep. No. 99-908, pt. 1, p. 22. Pp. 6-10.

(b) The government's two additional lines of argument for barring the award of attorney fees for untimely petitions are unpersuasive. First, the canon of construction favoring strict construction of waivers of sovereign immunity, the presumption favoring the retention of familiar common-law principles, and the policy argument that the NCVIA should be construed so as to minimize complex and costly fees litigation must all give way when, as here, the statute's words "are unambiguous." Connecticut Nat. Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 253-54. Second, even if the NCVIA's plain text requires that special masters occasionally carry out "shadow trials" to determine whether late petitions were brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis, that is not such an absurd burden as to require departure from the words of the act. This is especially true where Congress has specifically provided for such "shadow trials" by permitting the award of attorney fees "in any proceeding [on an unsuccessful] petition" if such petition was brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis. Section 300aa-15(e)(1). Pp. 10-13.

675 F.3d 1358, affirmed.

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