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Seventh Circuit Denies Attorney Fees to Individual Truckers With Attorneys Paid by OOIDA – OOIDA v. FMCSA

By April 4, 2012July 17th, 2019Trucking Regulations

I’ve written here several times before, as a Missouri tractor-trailer accident attorney, about the controversy in the trucking industry over electronic onboard recorders. Truck drivers and trucking companies dislike the monitors, which are intended to provide more reliable logs than the paper logs currently required but being phased out in the United States. For those exact reasons, however, trucking safety advocates vastly prefer electronic onboard recorders, which make it much harder to falsify information to make it look like the driver was complying with safety regulations. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration made a final rule requiring the devices, and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and a few individual truckers sued. Last summer, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with OOIDA and the drivers, delaying but not ending the device rule. In its April 2 ruling in OOIDA v. FMCSA, the court declined to award attorney fees to the drivers.
Three of the drivers, William Culligan, Adam Burnett and Douglas Oldham, sought attorney fees under the federal Equal Access to Justice Act. That law requires courts to award attorney fees and costs to prevailing parties in cases against the federal government, unless the government was “substantially justified” or there are other special circumstances that would make the award unjust. Eligible parties must be individuals with net worths of $2 million or less, or organizations with net worths of $7 million or less. OOIDA did not join in the fee petition, the Seventh Circuit noted, which led the court to infer that it would not qualify. There was no doubt that the drivers were prevailing parties, and the court was willing to take their financial status on faith. Nonetheless, the court ultimately agreed with the FMCSA that the truckers did not qualify for a fee award under the EAJA.
In this case, the individuals and OOIDA were all represented by the same law firm, with separate fee agreements. But for all three individuals, the firm agreed not to charge them a fee; it would instead charge OOIDA. Thus, the FMCSA argued that the real party in interest for the fee awards is OOIDA, not the individuals, preventing the individuals from arguing that they’re solely responsible for their own fees. The Seventh agreed. It further noted that the counsel of record is OOIDA’s longtime general counsel, and that he submitted records showing conferences with OOIDA but not the individuals. It went on to caution that EAJA eligibility is not the same as attorney fee eligibility, but the EAJA is intended to allow suits that otherwise may be out of the plaintiffs’ financial reach. With OOIDA covering the bills, that purpose would not be served, the court said.
As a southern Illinois semi truck accident lawyer, I am surprised the court did not phrase its disapproval more strongly. By making this fee arrangement, in which a large, fairly wealthy organization covers legal fees for individuals pursuing the same interests, the plaintiffs were pretty clearly never on the hook for the attorney fees. That makes it unjust to request fees they aren’t actually paying. The larger issue of electronic onboard recorders is more important to my practice as a St. Louis 18-wheeler accident attorney, however. The ruling on the merits required the FMCSA to consider the issue of driver harassment, which it’s currently doing through a series of listening sessions held with audiences of truckers around the country. I hope this leads to an EOBR rule that ultimately makes everyone, truck drivers included, safer.

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