Judge Wants Sabre to Pay Attorney Fees in $1 Antitrust Win
April 14, 2023
A recent Law 360 story by Piper Hudspeth Blackburn, “Judge Wants Sabre to Pay Fees in Airline’s $1 Antitrust Win,” reports that a federal magistrate judge has recommended that airline booking giant Sabre should cover the costs of attorney fees for US Airways, which pursued antitrust claims that ultimately resulted in a mere $1 jury award after more than a decade of litigation. In a report, U.S. Magistrate Judge James L. Cott determined that the airline is entitled to fees because of the "plain language" of federal antitrust law despite the nominal damages award. Judge Cott also noted that the amount could be reduced after looking at billing records.
Because a jury returned a verdict for US Airways on its monopolization claim under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, "a plain reading" of Section 4 of the Clayton Act allows US Airways to recover the cost of the suit, "including a reasonable attorney's fee," the report stated. In 2022, a Manhattan federal jury found, after a three-week trial, that Sabre willfully maintained monopoly power through exclusionary conduct. It was a redo of a 2016 trial that had awarded US Airways $15 million in damages before the Second Circuit scrapped the verdict on technical legal grounds.
Sabre has argued that U.S. Supreme Court precedent shows that when a party recovers only nominal damages, the only reasonable fee is "usually no fee at all." However, US Airways insists that the damages it received shouldn't affect its ability to recover costs and attorney fees. According to Judge Cott, Sabre's argument fails because the precedent the booking company pointed towards, Farrar v. Hobby, doesn't apply to this case but rather to the reasonableness of fee awards in civil rights cases. Farrar holds that the reasonableness of a fee award is indicated by the size of damages awarded.
"Farrar concerned the entitlement to fees under § 1988 of the U.S. Code, not the Clayton Act or any other mandatory fee statute, and there is no suggestion in the opinion itself that its holding extended beyond § 1988," the report stated. Judge Cott pointed toward a Second Circuit decision on "an identical issue" to this one, United States Football League v. National Football League, instead. In that case, the court had to determine whether a plaintiff is entitled to reasonable attorney fees "after decade-long antitrust litigation resulting in a $1 jury verdict only on Sherman Act Section 2 grounds."
Not only did the court decide that the plaintiff could recover attorney fees, it "further explained that civil rights cases are inapposite as they concern discretionary awards of fees, while Section 4 mandates them," the report continued. Judge Cott also rejected Sabre's argument that in the event it must pay attorney fees, the amount should be reduced by 99% because US Airways only "obtain[ed] .0000003% of its alleged damages ... and no injunctive relief."
While no legal rule requires that fees be proportional to the requested amount and the recovered damages, Judge Cott, wrote that the court can reduce the requested fees after analyzing billing records. While "a downward adjustment is undoubtedly warranted" in this case, Judge Cott noted that the court couldn't determine the amount without first calculating the lodestar.
"The court's eventual reduction will be guided by comparable cases in this circuit, which do not necessarily dictate the extreme slashing that Sabre seeks," the report stated. The litigation began in 2011, when US Airways sued Sabre, alleging that the company had monopolized the market for systems that connect airlines to travel agents and violated federal antitrust laws.