United States v. 2002 BMW, Model X-5 ( 2009 )

                        FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT  United States Court of Appeals
                                                        Fifth Circuit
                                                                                           June 16, 2009
                                                 No. 08-20541                        Charles R. Fulbruge III
    MINH HUYNH, also known as Jeff Huynh;
    NU HUYNH, also known as Cindy Huynh
    NU “Cindy” HUYNH; MINH “Jeff” HUYNH
                          Appeal from the United States District Court
                               for the Southern District of Texas
                                     USDC No. 4:06-CV-399
                                    USDC No. 4:05-CV-1155
    Before REAVLEY, WIENER, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.
                                           No. 08-20541
           Plaintiffs-Appellants Nu and Minh Huynh appeal the magistrate judge’s
    judgment on attorneys’ fees and costs entered in two consolidated actions: one
    brought by Plaintiffs to set aside the Government’s administrative forfeiture of
    their jewelry, and the other initiated by the Government seeking judicial
    forfeiture of Plaintiffs’ vehicle. Reviewing the fee award for abuse of discretion
    and the conclusions of law underlying it de novo, see Navigant Consulting, Inc.
    v. Wilkinson, 
    508 F.3d 277
    , 297 (5th Cir. 2007), we AFFIRM for the following
    1. We agree with the magistrate judge that Plaintiffs’ success on their claim
    under 18 U.S.C. § 983(e) to set aside the administrative forfeiture of certain
    jewelry for lack of sufficient notice does not permit the recovery of reasonable
    attorneys’ fees available to a substantially prevailing party under the Civil Asset
    Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (“CAFRA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2465(b)(1). Because the
    requested fee award implicates the Government’s sovereign immunity, any
    waiver of immunity must be “unequivocally expressed, with all uncertainties
    being resolved in favor of the [G]overnment.” Boehms v. Crowell, 
    139 F.3d 452
    463 (5th Cir. 1998) (emphasis in original). Moreover, the “American Rule”
    generally precludes fee-shifting absent “express statutory authorization to the
    contrary.” Id. By its plain terms, CAFRA’s fee-shifting provision applies only
    to civil proceedings “to forfeit property,” that is, civil forfeiture actions initiated
    by the Government. 28 U.S.C. § 2465(b)(1) (emphasis added). Cf. Carvajal v.
    United States, 
    521 F.3d 1242
    , 1247 (9th Cir. 2008) (explaining that the parallel
    provision of CAFRA providing for payment of interest, § 2465(b)(1)(C), “is
    triggered only when the government institutes civil forfeiture proceedings” and
             Pursuant to 5TH CIR . R. 47.5, the court has determined that this opinion should not
    be published and is not precedent except under the limited circumstances set forth in 5TH CIR .
    R. 47.5.4.
                                       No. 08-20541
    the party seeking fees “substantially prevails” (emphasis in original)). Plaintiffs’
    claim, in contrast, seeks to set aside a forfeiture that has already occurred.
    18 U.S.C. § 983(e). Far from unequivocally and expressly authorizing Plaintiffs’
    fee request, the statutory language of § 2465(b)(1) clearly does not apply to their
    action pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 983(e).
    2. Contrary to Plaintiffs’ assertion, adherence to the plain text of § 2465(b)(1)
    does not create absurd results.         Unlike a successful defense against a
    Government-initiated judicial forfeiture action, a claim to set aside an
    administrative forfeiture neither resolves the substantive merits of the forfeiture
    nor prevents the Government from seizing the property again. See 18 U.S.C.
    § 983(e)(1)(A) & (B) (limiting the grounds for setting aside administrative
    forfeiture to instances where the government failed reasonably to provide notice
    and the moving party neither knew nor had reason to know of the seizure within
    sufficient time to file a claim); § 983(e)(2)(A) (noting the exclusive remedy is to
    set aside the forfeiture without prejudice to the government’s commencement of
    a forfeiture proceeding); Mesa Valderrama v. United States, 
    417 F.3d 1189
    , 1196
    (11th Cir. 2005) (agreeing with the government that the complainant’s merits-
    based challenge to the forfeiture can only be resolved in a civil judicial forfeiture
    proceeding, since challenges under § 983(e) are limited to “the process of
    forfeiture”).   This distinction between the permanence and degree of relief
    obtained logically supports a corresponding difference in the availability of
    attorney’s fees under CAFRA.
    3. The magistrate judge also correctly rejected Plaintiffs’ request pursuant to
    § 2465 for attorneys’ fees in connection with the civil action to forfeit their BMW
    sports-utility vehicle, a claim that the Government voluntarily dismissed
    without prejudice.    The judge’s finding of deficient notice with respect to
    Plaintiffs’ jewelry did not constitute a finding that the notice as to the vehicle
    was also insufficient, because the latter issue was not actually or necessarily
                                      No. 08-20541
    decided due to the Government’s dismissal of the action and return of the vehicle
    to Plaintiffs. See, e.g., Alpha/Omega Ins. Servs., Inc. v. Prudential Ins. Co. of
    272 F.3d 276
    , 279 (5th Cir. 2001) (explaining that law of the case applies
    only to issues “that were actually decided” or were “decided by necessary
    implication” (internal quotation marks omitted)); In re Gober, 
    100 F.3d 1195
    1200 n.2 (5th Cir. 1996) (defining collateral estoppel as barring “relitigation of
    issues that were actually litigated and decided in a previous action”). Nor does
    the Government’s dismissal without prejudice bestow prevailing party status on
    Plaintiffs because it effected no “change in the legal relationship of the parties.”
    Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep’t of Health & Human Res., 
    532 U.S. 598
    , 605, 
    121 S. Ct. 1835
    , 1840 (2001); see also, e.g., RFR Indus., Inc. v.
    Century Steps, Inc., 
    477 F.3d 1348
    , 1353 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (reasoning that
    voluntary dismissal that leaves the plaintiff free to refile his claim effects no
    change in the parties’ legal relationship).     The return of Plaintiffs’ car did
    nothing to prevent the Government from seizing it again. Additionally, the court
    entered no order with respect to the car addressing the merits of the forfeiture
    claim prior to its voluntary dismissal.        Without the “necessary judicial
    imprimatur,” Plaintiffs cannot establish prevailing party status as to this action.
    Buckhannon, 532 U.S. at 605, 121 S. Ct. at 1840 (emphasis removed).
    4. We also find no abuse of discretion in the amount of attorneys’ fees and costs
    awarded to Plaintiffs for prevailing on their claim related to the jewelry under
    the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A) and 28 U.S.C. § 1920.
    Under well-established law, the district court had no jurisdiction to resolve
    challenges to seizure of the jewelry except for its compliance with procedural and
    due process requirements. See Bailey v. United States, 
    508 F.3d 736
    , 738–39
    (5th Cir. 2007) (explaining that the district court’s jurisdiction at this juncture
    is limited to “whether the forfeiture comported with constitutional due process
    guarantees,” which, in turn, require notice reasonably calculated to apprise the
                                      No. 08-20541
    complainant of the forfeiture action and an opportunity to object (internal
    quotation marks and citation omitted) (emphasis added)); United States v.
    80 F.3d 1064
    , 1069 (5th Cir. 1996) (limiting jurisdiction to review of
    compliance with “procedural requirements or to comport with due process”).
    Thus, fees incurred by Plaintiffs for attacking the constitutionality of the
    forfeiture statutes as a whole under the Appropriations Clause and the
    separation-of-powers doctrine, over which the district court clearly lacked
    jurisdiction, were appropriately excluded. As for Plaintiffs’ entitlement to costs
    associated with the deposition of a witness, their failure affirmatively to request
    those expenses in their initial motion below waives any right to recovery.