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Merits Appeal Shouldn’t Have Waited on Fees

WASHINGTON (CN) - Union-affiliated benefit funds waited a month too long to appeal for more money after they deemed a five-figure damages award insufficient, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The case pits Central Pension Fund of the International Union of Operating Engineers and other funds against Ray Haluch Gravel Co., a landscape supply company based in Ludlow, Mass.

After an audit, the funds claimed that the company underpaid on the contributions it owed them under a union contract.

A federal judge awarded the funds more than $26,800 on June 17, 2011, and awarded the funds more than $34,000 in attorneys' fees on July 25, 2011.

The funds appealed on both counts, leading the 1st Circuit to vacate the awards in September 2012.

In its petition to the Supreme Court, Ray Haluch Gravel argued that the judgment had been final in June 2011, before attorneys' fees were set, meaning that the funds missed the 30-day window to appeal.

The justices unanimously agreed with that argument Wednesday, finding that there was no timely appeal to the damages order.

"Whether the claim for attorney's fees is based on a statute, a contract, or both, the pendency of a ruling on an award for fees and costs does not prevent, as a general rule, the merits judgment from becoming final for purposes of appeal," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.

Any concern about avoiding "piecemeal litigation" must also take into account the importance of promptly assessing whether a merits ruling will be appealed, according to the ruling.

"This is especially so because claims for attorney's fees may be complex and require a considerable amount of time to resolve. Indeed, in this rather simple case, the fee-related submissions take up well over 100 pages in the joint appendix," Kennedy wrote.

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