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Third Circuit Clarifies Federal Civil Procedure Rule 68 Concerning Attorney’s Fees

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a New Jersey federal district court’s ruling that a judgment/settlement included attorney’s fees under Rule 68 of the federal rules of civil procedure.

The case arose when a photographer, working for Robert Lima’s Portuguese-language newspaper, The Brazilian Voice, discovered and photographed a decomposing body in the Iron Bound section of Newark, New Jersey. Lima reported the incident to the police and showed them the crime scene. Two officers at the scene intimidated Lima and the photographer, seized the camera, and ordered Lima not to publish photographs of the scene. Lima gave a statement to police but refused to turn over the original copies of the photos, offering to make them copies. The officers handcuffed Lima and only released him after he agreed to turn over all copies of the photos.

In January 2008, Lima filed suit against the Newark Police Department. After various offers and counter-offers, the Newark Police Department made a Rule 68 offer of judgment for $55,000, which Lima accepted with the exception of attorney fees and costs. The district court ruled that the offer was inclusive of fees.

On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded, stating that, “The offer was valid and silent as to fees and cost. That fact begins and ends our analysis…courts must not consider extrinsic evidence or the intentions of the parties…” To support this holding, the Third Circuit relied upon the original email of the offer, which stated, “The city makes this offer with the intention and expectation that, if accepted, this litigation will be resolved in its entirety.” A court cannot allow their awareness of such irrelevant facts to influence their interpretations of the plain language of the offer. The Third Circuit reversed the district court’s order and remanded for a determination of reasonable fees and costs under 42 U.S.C. 1988. See: Lima v. Newark Police Department, 658 F.3d 324 (3rd Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Lima v. Newark Police Department