Appeals court says OOIDA does not have to pay Prime's attorney fees

| Friday, February 25, 2005

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has unanimously overturned a lower court ruling that would have required OOIDA to pay attorney fees to New Prime Inc. in the federal complaint brought by OOIDA against the Springfield, MO-based motor carrier.

OOIDA originally filed the class-action suit against Prime in federal court alleging multiple violations of the federal truth-in-leasing regulations. The Eighth Circuit District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled that owner-operators who signed leases prior to Jan. 1, 1996, the effective date of the ICC Termination Act, could not prosecute their claims under the federal truth-in-leasing regulations without imposing impermissible retroactive effects. This technicality stopped the case before a trial could be held to prove whether or not Prime violated the leasing regulations. No merits of the case were ever presented or argued before the court.

Subsequently, the federal judge in Springfield, MO announced that he would award attorney fees and costs in excess of $500,000 to New Prime. OOIDA appealed the decision to the Eight Circuit. That court has now agreed with OOIDA and has overturned the lower court’s fee award to Prime.

OOIDA President Jim Johnston praised the ruling noting “motor carriers will not be able to intimidate owner-operators by threatening to make them pay attorneys fees if they don’t prevail in court.

“OOIDA has never been intimidated by such obstructionist tactics and will continue in its efforts to obtain justice for owner-operators.”

Prime had argued that the language of federal statutes dealing with attorney fees should be interpreted as allowing for the awarding of fees to prevailing defendants. In rejecting this position, the Appeals Court pointed out that the leasing regulations developed by the Interstate Commerce Commission were created with an expressed “deep concern for the problems faced the owner-operator in making a decent living in his chosen profession.” The court found that the right of private enforcement of the truth-in-leasing regulations “would be severely chilled if we were to adopt Prime’s interpretation.” If fees could be awarded to prevailing defendants, it would be contrary to the intention of the regulations and a deterrent to the ability of owner-operators to vindicate their rights in federal court as provided in the 1995 ICC Termination Act. The appeals court rejected Prime’s argument and refused to conclude “that Congress established a private remedy and simultaneously created a unique and formidable barrier to its attainment.”

OOIDA General Counsel Paul D. Cullen Sr. said, “The Eighth Circuit’s ruling in Prime represents a major victory for owner-operators.”

“This decision removes a major road block that motor carriers tried to place between owner-operators and relief in the federal courts,” said Cullen, who argued the case before the Eighth Circuit.

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