Blog The Case or Controversy Requirement & Attorneys’ Fees

David R. Osborne

In federal courts, Article III of the United States Constitution requires that there be a “case or controversy” before courts can exercise jurisdiction over the parties. Yet some principles of justiciability are only loosely connected to that requirement. For example, the principle of “mootness,” as the late-Chief Justice Rehnquist once pointed out, “may be connected to the case or controversy requirement of Art. III, [but] it is an attenuated connection that may be overridden where there are strong reasons to override it.” 1

Pennsylvania courts have largely adopted the “case or controversy” requirement, yet without any apparent connection to state constitutional language. Instead, the requirement exists in Pennsylvania only as a matter of “prudential application of similar principles.” 2  As a result, federal court decisions concerning justiciability are sometimes “helpful”—but not dispositive—in Pennsylvania courts. 3

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Giant Eagle Markets Co. v. UFCW, Local Union No. 23, 652 A.2d 1286 (Pa. 1995), represents a significant distinction between the development of state and federal approaches to justiciability—and mootness in particular. Whereas, in federal courts, an “interest in attorney’s fees is, of course, insufficient to create an Article III case or controversy where none exists on the merits of the underlying claim,” 4 in state courts, such an interest, standing alone, represents a reason to exercise jurisdiction5.

In Giant Eagle6, certain employees represented by UFCW went on strike against their employer, Giant Eagle. However, Giant Eagle successfully obtained a preliminary injunction on the basis that the pickets utilized during the strike effectively seized company property in violation of state law.7

Shortly after the trial court entered its injunction, the labor dispute—and the strike—ended.8

Still, UFCW officials, hoping they could recover attorneys’ fees by proving that the trial court had erred in enjoining the pickets, appealed the injunction order to the Superior Court.9 The Superior Court agreed with UFCW officials that the trial court had erred and remanded for entry of attorneys’ fees.10

But Giant Eagle appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing, in part, that the case was moot because the labor dispute had ended.11

Interestingly, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized that the labor dispute had ended but determined that the case was not moot:

Where a party has a legally cognizable interest in the outcome of an issue of a case, that case is not moot. Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 496 (1969). Here, although the strike has been settled, the question of attorney fees still remains because under [state law] appellee is clearly entitled to such recovery if appellant’s request for an injunction should have been denied. The Superior Court, therefore, was correct in determining that the end of the strike giving rise to this case has not rendered the matter moot.12

 

Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the trial court did not err in enjoining the pickets, which is likely important precedent for those involved in labor disputes.13

But Giant Eagle’s justiciability determination is equally important for those litigating over issues that could lead to statutory attorneys’ fees. At least in Pennsylvania, litigants have a continued stake in the outcome of a decision when the court’s decision could translate to an award of attorneys’ fees.

 

References

1Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 331 (1988) (Rehnquist, C.J., concurring); see generally Matthew I. Hall, The Partially Prudential Doctrine of Mootness, 77 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 562 (2009).

2 Rendell v. Pennsylvania State Ethics Comm’n, 983 A.2d 708, 717 n.9 (Pa. 2009).

3See id. at n.10. (“Pennsylvania courts have frequently found the extensive body of federal decisions helpful in addressing standing and other prudential considerations.”).

4Lewis v. Cont’l Bank Corp., 494 U.S. 472, 480 (1990)

5 see Giant Eagle, 652 A.2d at 1291.

6 652 A.2d at 1287

7 See id. at 1287, 1291.

8 Id. at 1291.

9 Id.

10 Id.

11 Id.

12 Id.

13 Id. at 1293.