A vaccine injury victim whose claim is time-barred under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act can still recover attorney fees because the claim was reasonable and made in good faith, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.
“[S]o long as such a petition was brought in good faith and with a reasonable basis, it is eligible for an award of attorney’s fees, even if it is ultimately unsuccessful,” wrote Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor in the unanimous ruling in Sebelius v. Cloer. “If Congress had intended to limit fee awards to timely petitions, it could easily have done so.”
The case stemmed from a claim brought by Melissa Cloer, who received three hepatitis-B immunizations in 1996 and 1997 while a student at the University of Missouri. After years of suffering from numbness in her face, arms and legs and failing to get a conclusive diagnosis from doctors, she was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Soon after, she discovered the link between the vaccine and the illness.
She filed a claim in 2004 under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, the federally established no-fault process to quickly adjudicate claims of people injured by vaccines. The language of the law permits even unsuccessful claimants to seek attorney fees incurred in connection with a “petition filed.”
Cloer’s claim was ultimately dismissed as untimely because it was filed more than 36 months after she experienced the first symptoms of MS in 1997. Cloer sought attorney fees pursuant to the Act, but the government objected, arguing that the lower court’s finding that her claim was time-barred precluded an attorney fee award.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in Cloer’s favor, holding that attorney fees could be awarded to someone who submits a time-barred claim as long as the petition was made in good faith and had a reasonable basis.
The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the text of the statute mandated that result. “[P]etitions filed with the clerk of the court are eligible for attorney’s fees. …By its terms, the [Act] requires nothing more for the award of attorney’s fees.” Sotomayor wrote.