Recovery of Attorneys’ Fees Not Permissible for Lawyer/Spouse Plaintiffs Under Uniform Relocation Act

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A recent Federal Circuit case, Haggart v. United States, No. 21-1660 (June 22, 2022) determined that under the Uniform Relocation Act, like other fee-shifting statutes, attorneys’ fees are not recoverable if the lawyer is one of the litigants.

Background

This case originally started as a rails-to-trails class action case out of Washington State.  A husband and wife were part of the class that alleged their property was taken.  This proceeding was brought in order to recover compensation for the taking of property by a federal agency.  The Uniform Relocation Act comes into play because when a judgment is rendered or a settlement reached in such a suit, the Uniform Relocation Act allows for the recovery of certain fees and expenses.  (42 U.S.C. § 4654 (c).)  This case was ultimately settled.  Due to the settlement, various motions were made to recover attorneys’ fees, as permitted by the Uniform Relocation Act.  The husband and wife were awarded attorneys’ fees for work performed by counsel that they had jointly hired.  The wife filed a separate motion for fees and expenses.  She sought fees for work performed by her attorney-spouse, who was a joint owner of property at issue and a co-plaintiff in the case.  She also sought to recover certain expenses.  Her motion was denied on the ground that her husband was a co-plaintiff and co-owner and as a pro se plaintiff, the work was not compensable.

Arguments on Appeal

On appeal, the wife had two arguments for the recovery of fees.  First, she argued that the Uniform Relocation Act was distinct from other fee-shifting statutes because it was enacted with the purpose of making litigants whole.  Second, she argued that even if the rule against recovery for pro se litigants applied, she was not a pro se litigant.

Analysis

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeal disagreed with her arguments.  First, the court determined that there was no reason to read the URA’s fee provision to authorize an attorney pro se litigant to receive attorneys’ fees when other fee-shifting statues do not.  By analyzing the statutory language and legislative history, the court found nothing to differentiate this statute from others.  Second, the court determined that her claim was intrinsically tied with her husband’s claim, as they were joint owners of the property and co-plaintiffs in the litigation.  Therefore, even if the husband was representing his wife, he could only do so by representing his own interests as well.  That representation would be a pro se basis.

As for the wife’s expenses claim, the court reached a different conclusion.  It determined that the statute treats fees and expenses separately.  Even though pro se litigants cannot recover attorneys’ fees, they may recover certain expenses.

Therefore, the wife may not recover attorneys’ fees for her attorney-husband’s work, but she may recover expenses.

Conclusion

This case clarifies that pro se litigants under the Uniform Relocation Act are treated no differently than under other fee-shifting statutes.  Specifically, even where the litigant is an attorney and they are representing themselves and their spouse, pro se litigants cannot recover attorneys’ fees.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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