By Charles M. Oellermann and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)
Courts disagree whether a bankruptcy court, in exercising its broad equitable powers, has the authority to award appellate legal fees as a sanction for contempt. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently weighed in on this issue as an apparent matter of first impression. In Law Offices of Francis J. Reilly, Esq. v. Selene Finance, L.P. (In re DiBattista), 33 F.4th 698 (2d Cir. 2022), the Second Circuit held that a bankruptcy court erroneously concluded that it did not have the power to award attorney fees incurred on appeal by a debtor seeking to enforce a contempt order for violations of a bankruptcy discharge order.
The Second Circuit explained that it is well settled that a bankruptcy court, exercising its broad equitable powers under section 105(a), “may compensate a debtor for a creditor’s violation of [a] discharge order” entered under section 524(a). These provisions, the court wrote, which “‘bring with them the old soil that has long governed how courts enforce injunctions,’” authorize a court to impose civil contempt sanctions to coerce compliance with an injunction or to compensate a complainant for losses arising from noncompliance. “[I]n line with long-established practice,” the Ninth Circuit explained, a bankruptcy court’s contempt power includes the authority to compensate a party for damages arising from noncompliance with an injunction, “even if those losses take the form of appellate litigation fees.”
The Second Circuit rejected the argument that the “American Rule” precludes an award of appellate fees “absent explicit statutory authority.” According to the court, an exception to the American Rule has long been recognized that permits a court to award legal fees for willful disobedience of an order entered as part of a fine levied on a contemnor.
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