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Aetna Casualty and Surety Co. v. Liebowitz

decided: March 26, 1984.

THE AETNA CASUALTY AND SURETY COMPANY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
STUART E. LIEBOWITZ, D/B/A CLARIDGE AGENCY LTD., CLARIDGE BROKERAGE, INC., ANDREW BROKERAGE, INC., DINA BROKERAGE, INC., ERIC BROKERAGE, INC., JEFFREY BROKERAGE, INC., KEVIN BROKERAGE, INC., LISA BROKERAGE, INC., MARIAN BROKERAGE, INC., MICKIE BROKERAGE, INC., AND ROBIN BROKERAGE, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from an order of the Eastern District of New York, Circuit Judge George C. Pratt, sitting by designation, denying plaintiff's motion for an award of attorney's fees and costs in a civil suit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968, after the plaintiff had obtained injunctive relief and settled the case. The court holds that attorney's fees may be awarded under 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c) only to plaintiffs who obtain a final recovery on the merits.

Mansfield, Pierce and Winter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Mansfield

MANSFIELD, Circuit Judge:

This appeal raises a question of first impression: whether a plaintiff who obtains a preliminary injunction in a civil action under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968, and then settles the case, is entitled to an attorney's fee award. Plaintiff Aetna Casualty and Surety Company ("Aetna") appeals from a decision of the Eastern District of New York, Circuit Judge George C. Pratt, sitting by designation, 570 F. Supp. 908, denying its motion for attorney's fees and costs. The district court ruled that the relevant RICO provision, § 1964(c), permits an attorney's fee to be awarded only to a plaintiff who obtains a judgment for damages on the merits; since Aetna settled its claim before trial, he denied the motion for fees and costs. We affirm.

Aetna filed this suit under, inter alia, 18 U.S.C. § 1964 in August 1981, claiming that defendant Stuart Liebowitz, an insurance broker, illegally converted to his own use money paid to him as insurance premiums by applicants for automobile insurance through New York's assigned risk pool. The premiums belonged to Aetna and other insurers and were required to be deposited in a trust account for their benefit. Instead, Liebowitz kept the applicants' payments, and sent his own checks on to the insurers; those checks were returned for insufficient funds. Aetna alone received 321 bad checks with a total face value of $51,006.55 and it represented only 8.7% of the plan's business. Thus Liebowitz's practice bore all the earmarks of deliberate fraud. Aetna alleged that his activities violated the mail fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1341, which is specified in 18 U.S.C. § 1961(1)(B) as a predicate offense for a RICO violation, 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c).*fn1 Aetna also alleged several state law causes of action, including conversion and breach of contract.

In October 1981 Aetna moved for a preliminary injunction that would require Liebowitz to pay insurers by certified check or money order. On December 8, 1981, after three days of live testimony Judge Pratt found a likelihood of success on the merits, a probability of irreparable harm to the plaintiff, and a balance of hardships in Aetna's favor. Accordingly he granted the injunction pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 65. In doing so, Judge Pratt expressly stated that he was not acting on the state law claims: "I view my function as simply enforcing federal law as it is set forth in the Civil RICO statute and the mail fraud statute."

After further discovery Aetna moved in April 1982 for summary judgment. On April 29, 1982, however, the parties agreed to settle the action. Under the terms of the settlement agreement Liebowitz would be permanently enjoined from participating in the insurance business, he would be liable to Aetna for $160,000, and Aetna would apply to the district court for an award of attorney's fees and costs. The agreement also provided, however, that Aetna would not seek to enforce the $160,000 judgment or to collect any fees it might be awarded, provided Liebowitz paid Aetna $100,000 by October 21, 1982. Judgment in accordance with the settlement was filed on May 7, 1982. The record indicates that Liebowitz has defaulted on the $100,000 payment and that Aetna has institute proceedings to enforce the $160,000 judgment.

Aetna moved for an award of attorney's fees and costs in May 1982, arguing that such an award was allowed under 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c). After affirming his authority to grant the previously-issued preliminary injunction Judge Pratt denied the motion for attorney's fees. He ruled that in the absence of statutory language authorizing an award of such fees to a "prevailing party" and in view of the close parallel between the language of § 1964(c) and that of previously-construed identical language of § 4 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 15, from which it was borrowed, an award of attorney's fees must be denied.

Discussion

Appellant's right to an attorney's fee turns on the construction to be given to 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c), which provides:

"(c) Any person injured in his business or property by reason of a violation of section 1962 of this chapter may sue therefor in any appropriate United States district court and shall recover threefold the damages he sustains and the cost of the suit, including a reasonable attorney's fee."

Unless this language may be construed to permit an attorney's fee award, the judgment of the district court must be affirmed, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 269-71, 44 L. Ed. 2d 141, 95 S. Ct. 1612 (1975) (with few exceptions the "American Rule" requires each party to bear his attorney's fees).

Even when the foregoing language is liberally construed to effectuate RICO's purpose, as the statute expressly commands us to do, see § 904(a) of Pub. L. 91-452, 84 Stat. 947,*fn2 and as would in any event be required in construing a fee-shifting provision, see Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 415-17, 54 L. Ed. 2d 648, 98 S. Ct. 694 (1978); Carey v. New York Gaslight Club, Inc., 598 F.2d 1253, 1256 (2d Cir. 1979), aff'd, 447 U.S. 54, 64 L. Ed. 2d 723, 100 S. Ct. 2024 (1980), it appears on its face to require a civil RICO plaintiff, in order to qualify for an attorney's fee, first to prove that he has suffered injury to his business or property as a result of the RICO violation and to recover the damages sustained and the cost of the suit, of which the attorney's fee would be deemed part. Nothing in the statute's language indicates an intent to authorize an attorney's fee award for obtaining injunctive relief, as distinguished from damages, or for a plaintiff's successfully negotiating a settlement of his claim. No general or flexible terms permitting such a construction are to be found; the statute says treble damages "and" attorney's fees, not "or" attorney's fees. Absent legislative history or other evidence to the effect that Congress meant someting other than what it provided in plain language, we are powerless to change the statute's terms. Consumer Product Safety Commission v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108, 64 L. Ed. 2d 766, 100 S. Ct. 2051 (1980); Burns v. Alcala, 420 U.S. 575, 580-81, 43 L. Ed. 2d 469, 95 S. Ct. 1180 (1975).

Turning to the legislative history of § 1964(c), we find nothing indicating a Congressional intent to authorize an award of attorney's fees when there has been less than a final recovery of damages and costs. Indeed, the history on the subject is completely silent. RICO was enacted in 1970, several years before Congress undertook a program of widespread encouragement of private enforcement of certain laws through enactment of provisions authorizing attorney's fee awards to a "prevailing party," a term considerably broader and more flexible than that found in § 1964(c). The fee-award terms of RICO, in contrast, appear to ...


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