WICKENS v. SHELL OIL CO. (August 31, 2010)

Daniel and Pamela Wickens owned a small parcel of land in central Indiana that had previously been the site of a Shell gasoline station. During preparations for the sale of the parcel, they discovered that the soils were contaminated. Their attorney, Mark Shere, began negotiations with Shell -- under the Indiana Underground Storage Tank Act (the “Act”), a person who takes steps to remedy soil contamination caused by an underground storage tank may be reimbursed by the owner and may recover his attorneys' fees if he brings a successful suit. When a neighbor's property (also the site of a former gasoline station -- but not owned by Shell) was also found to be contaminated, the parties fought over the source and responsibility for the contamination. The Wickenses brought suit in early 2005. The district court denied Shell's summary judgment motion, concluding that it probably bore full responsibility for the contamination. Although the Wickenses continued to control the investigation and rack up remediation costs and attorneys' fees, the parties could not seem to reach a settlement. The court adopted a three month freeze on the parties' liability for each other's fees and costs in early 2007 in an attempt to foster a resolution. She also instructed the parties to select and retain an independent consultant to investigate the properties. Notwithstanding the court's order, the parties continued to incur substantial fees and costs during and after the freeze. The parties finally reached an agreement -- Shell purchased the property, made a payment for property damages, and agreed that the Wickenses were entitled to their costs and fees. They left the calculation up to the court. Judge Barker (S.D. Ind.) awarded all of the Wickenses' costs and fees up to the point of her freeze order, after which she disallowed all costs (with the exception of some corrective action costs pursuant to a state work plan) and fees. On post-judgment motions, the court a) deducted the amount of fees billed as attorney services by Shere’s wife, a non-attorney, and b) admonished Shere for concealing the fact that his fees were largely paid by an insurance company throughout the litigation but granted Shell no relief. Shell appeals. Shere (after being allowed to appear as a real party in interest) cross-appeals.

In their opinion, Circuit Judges Bauer and Wood and District Judge Kennelly affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part. The only issues on appeal relates to the award of expert costs and attorneys' fees. The Court first concluded that the lower court correctly applied a statutory purpose test for calculating a fee award under the Act. Second, the Court ruled that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the statutory purpose was satisfied as of January 2007. The Court rejected Shell's suggestions that an earlier date was appropriate and the Wickenses's suggestions that a later date was required. Next, the Court upheld (with a small clerical error reversed and remanded) the deduction for fees incurred by Shere’s wife. There was nothing wrong with the her time entries. They could have been billed as non-attorney time -- but were improperly billed as attorney time. Finally, the Court concluded that the district court did not clearly err in its award of expert costs after January 2007. On Shere’s cross-appeal, the Court a) found no abuse of discretion in denying prejudgment interest, b) concluded that Shell suffered no prejudice from Shere’s insurance concealment and found no error in the court's denial of relief, and c) refused to consider Shere’s complaint that the district court was unduly critical of his litigation conduct.