Court of Appeals Affirms Award of More than $20K in Costs to Prevailing Party in Civil Action

On July 3, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Cormier v. D.C. Water & Sewer Authority, Nos. 11-CV-1290 & 12-CV-537, slip op. (D.C. July 3, 2013) in which it reviewed, inter alia, the trial court’s award of costs to the defendant-appellee which prevailed in the proceedings below. Id. at 1-2, 18-23. The trial court awarded “a total of $23,714.25 in costs,” which included, inter alia, “$13,312.11 for deposition transcripts, $2,599.34 for copying costs, and $1,859.06 in travel costs (that were associated, mainly, with defense counsel’s attendance at an out-of-state de bene esse deposition).” Id. at 18. The plaintiff-appellant appealed, inter alia, the award of the aforementioned deposition, copying, and travel costs. Id.

By way of background, pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 54(d), the Superior Court may exercise its discretion to award costs to the prevailing party in a civil action. Id. at 18-23 & n.22. “[T]he Superior Court’s discretion to award costs to the prevailing party under Civil Rule 54 (d) is limited to items ‘specifically authorized by 28 U.S.C. § 1920 . . . or by other statutes (or court rule).” Id. at 20-21 (ellipse in original; quoting Talley v. Varma, 689 A.2d 547, 555 (D.C. 1997)). As relevant to this case, “‘[d]eposition costs are specifically delineated as taxable at the court’s discretion under [Superior Court Civil Rule] 54-I,’ as long as the court finds that the depositions were ‘necessary for case preparation.'” Id. at 19 n.24 (quoting Nicola v. Washington Times Corp., 947 A.2d 1164, 1176 (D.C. 2008)). Additionally, “‘the prevailing party may recover the cost of obtaining and copying records and other material necessary for case preparation and presentation.'” Id. (quoting Talley, 689 A.2d at 555 and citing 28 U.S.C. § 1920(4)).

The plaintiff-appellant raised three main arguments against the award of costs. First, the plaintiff-appellant argued that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding costs for deposition transcripts and copying costs. Id. at 18-19. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, finding that the trial court “carefully scrutinized these costs, as shown by the fact that it refused to award the bulk of the . . . copying costs that [defendant-appellee] requested on the ground that they either were not substantiated or were not shown to be reasonable and necessary.” Id. at 19.

Second, the plaintiff-appellant argued that the trial court improperly awarded travel costs. Id. at 18, 20-21. The Court of Appeals agreed, stating that the “attorney travel expense was not an allowable ‘cost’ within the meaning of Civil Rule 54 (d).” Id. at 20. It explained that “[t]he attorney travel costs in question here are not among the taxable costs enumerated in [28 U.S.C.] § 1920, and we are directed to no other statute or court rule authorizing the trial court to tax the losing party with them.” Id. at 21 (footnote omitted).

Third, the plaintiff-appellant argued that the defendant-appellee “‘overreached’ by seeking over $76 thousand in costs (more than three times what the trial court found to be awardable),” and therefore should be punished by being denied costs or having its award of costs substantially reduced. Id. at 22. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, stating that “[w]e have never penalized a prevailing party merely for requesting more costs than ultimately were awarded, and absent a showing of misconduct that has not been made here, we see no justification for doing so now.” Id. (footnote omitted).

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s award of costs to the defendant-appellee, “except insofar as [it] direct[ed] that the award be reduced by $1,859.06, representing [defendant-appellee’s] attorney travel costs.” Id. at 23. The other issues considered on appeal (which are not summarized here) were also decided in defendant-appellee’s favor. Id. at 9-17, 23.