NCAA Argues O’Bannon Win Insufficient for a Grant of $42 Million in Attorneys’ Fees

The NCAA has moved for the Ninth Circuit to deny a $42 million attorney’s fees request regarding the underlying litigation over rules barring student-athletes from receiving compensation for their names, images, and likeness, as the NCAA alleged the win was only partial, and thus, such a large award is inappropriate.

As background, a California district court issued an injunction, which prevented the NCAA from capping student-athletes financial aid amounts below the full cost of attendance, and that student-athletes could receive up to $5,000 per year for use of their name, image, and likeness. The cash payments are deferred until after graduation. While in 2015, the Ninth Circuit upheld the injunction, it reversed the lower court’s ruling that granted deferred payments. Both parties moved for the United States Supreme Court to review the decision, which was denied.

In February, the student-athletes maintained that they “substantially prevailed” in the underlying litigation, and therefore, attorneys’ fees were reasonable. They reasoned that they defeated eleven motions to dismiss and had to issue discovery from many schools and conferences.

However, their claim came despite the fact that the Ninth Circuit abandoned the portion of the O’Bannon ruling providing cash payment to the athletes. Therefore, the NCAA’s brief maintained that “[w]hile plaintiffs did prove narrow antitrust liability, they did so on behalf of only part of their class (which did not include any of the original names plaintiffs), and they have not demonstrated that the relief actually obtained directly benefited the class on whose behalf liability was established.” The brief continued, “[n]o class member who had already graduated when the district court entered its order will ever benefit from that order.”

Essentially, the NCAA’s argument amounts to the plaintiffs’ win simply not being big enough to justify such an award fee, regardless of the fees based on the amount of work put into the ten (plus) years of litigation.

The NCAA’s brief also stated that fees are not guaranteed every time liability is found, and here, the plaintiffs did not prevail on all of their case’s merits. Even if they did, that only guarantees them the possibility of fees — but does not guarantee fees, according to the NCAA’s brief.

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