Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, LTD (10-1472)

Oral argument: Feb. 21, 2012

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Mar. 8, 2011)

COURT COSTS, COMPENSATION OF INTERPRETERS, NEGLIGENCE

After falling through a deck on property owned by Respondent Kan Pacific Saipan, LTD, Petitioner Kouichi Taniguchi filed suit against the company for negligence. The district court granted summary judgment in Kan Pacific’s favor, and also awarded the company costs under 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6); the award included costs incurred in translating various documents from Japanese to English. The Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision, holding that the phrase “compensation of interpreters” in § 1920(6) applies to written translations, in addition to verbal interpretations. Taniguchi now appeals, arguing that the statute’s plain meaning, structure, and legislative history indicate that the term “interpreters” should be limited to oral translators of spoken language. The Supreme Court will decide whether litigants can recover for non-verbal translation costs; this decision has the potential to increase recoverable court costs, and to deter meritorious litigation.

Question presented

Section 1920 of 28 U.S.C. sets out the categories of costs that may be awarded to the prevailing party in a federal lawsuit. One of the listed categories is “compensation of interpreters.” § 1920(6).

The question presented is whether costs incurred in translating written documents are “compensation of interpreters” for purposes of section 1920(6).

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Issue

Whether a party can be awarded court costs for costs incurred in translating written documents.

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Facts

Petitioner Kouichi Taniguchi, a professional baseball player in Japan, dropped through a wooden deck during a tour of property belonging to Respondent Kan Pacific Saipan, LTD. See Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, LTD, 633 F.3d 1218, 1219 (9th Cir. 2011). Although Taniguchi initially stated that he did not need medical attention, he subsequently informed Kan Pacific that he had suffered numerous injuries during his fall. See id.Taniguchi alleged that, as a result of his fall, and the injuries sustained, he incurred numerous medical expenses and suffered a loss of income. See id.

Taniguchi filed a negligence suit against Kan Pacific in the United States District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands. See Taniguchi, 633 F.3d at 1219. The district court granted Kan Pacific’s motion for summary judgment, and also awarded Kan Pacific court costs, an award that included costs required to translate contracts and other documents from Japanese to English, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6) (which grants courts discretion to award costs for the “compensation of interpreters”). See id. at 1219–21. Taniguchi appealed, arguing that the district court erred in awarding costs to Kan Pacific. See id. at 1219–20.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court and held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding translation costs to Kan Pacific. See id. at 1222. Though noting that other circuits have interpreted § 1920(6) as applying only to verbal interpretations, rather than written translations, the Ninth Circuit held that § 1920(6) also applies to transactions, and that costs could therefore be awarded to Kan Pacific. See id. at 1221–22. On September 27, 2011, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear Taniguchi’s appeal, which will determine the scope of § 1920(6). See Question Presented.

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Discussion

At issue is the “compensation of interpreters” in 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6): should this be read to allow courts to award translation fees for written interpretations, as well as verbal ones? See Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, LTD, 132 S.Ct. 71 (2011). Petitioner Kouichi Taniguchi argues that granting costs for written translations would increase the probability of large awards, and would therefore have a deterrent effect on those attempting to file suit in the first place. See Brief for Petitioner, Kouichi Taniguchi at 37–38. In opposition, Respondent Kan Pacific Saipan, LTD argues that the costs of translating documents are generally moderate, making the concern about large cost awards (and alleged chilling effects) misplaced. See Brief for Respondent, Kan Pacific Saipan, LTD at 24–27.

Increased Costs for Losing Parties and Courts

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (“NAJIT”) argues that awarding costs for written translations would substantially increase the potential liability for losing parties. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in Support of Petitioner at 17–19. Specifically, the NAJIT asserts that, while verbal interpretations have natural time (and, therefore, expense) limits, no such limits exist for written translations, which can involve a wide range of documents, depending on a party’s decisions. See id. at 18. As a result, the NAJIT alleges, the costs associated with written translations often exceed those associated with verbal interpretations, sometimes reaching millions of dollars. See id. at 17–19. In addition, the NAJIT argues that granting translation costs would require courts to assess whether the costs were reasonably incurred, and the rate at which a party should be repaid, a lengthy and costly process. See id. at 20–21.

In response, Kan Pacific asserts that translation costs are rarely overwhelming (and generally modest), making the fear of any such increase in cost awards unwarranted. See Brief for Respondent at 24–27. The company concludes that, contrary to Taniguchi’s assertion, translation costs are often lower than verbal interpretation costs. See id. at 25–27. Kan Pacific further seeks to dispel any fears of high costs by arguing that district courts carefully assess translation costs, including their necessity and reasonableness, thereby assuring that costs remain controlled and realistic. See id. at 27–29. Kan Pacific argues that such careful consideration has been exemplified by courts for over seventy years, and that this record should ease any fears of increased costs to courts in carrying out cost assessments. See id. at 30.

Chilling Effect on Litigants

As a result of the potentially increased costs, Taniguchi argues that parties will be discouraged from filing meritorious suits out of fear of having to pay for large translation expenses. See Brief for Petitioner at 37–38. Taniguchi specifically worries about the chilling effect on immigrants and non-English speakers, who are more likely to bring suits involving documents requiring translation. See id. at 38–39. According to Taniguchi, this issue is even more problematic because of the concerns of foreign nations about the potential costs and burdens to their citizens associated with U.S. court procedures; removing the risk of written translation costs, Taniguchi asserts, would help allay these concerns. See id. at 40–41. Additionally, given the potential deterrent effect of increased court costs, especially on those who are poor, or for foreign nations, Taniguchi argues that granting written translation costs would be contrary to public policy. See id. at 37–39.

Kan Pacific rejects Taniguchi’s argument that foreign parties will be negatively impacted, arguing instead that they will actually benefit from grants of written translation costs. See id. at 31–32, 34. Kan Pacific argues that the increased likelihood that non-English documents will be involved in litigation with foreigners is not a reason to refuse to award translation costs. See id. at 32–34. Rather, Kan Pacific asserts that litigants would have additional incentives to litigate if they could recover those costs in the event of a win. See id. Similarly, Taniguchi’s assertions about the worries of foreign nations over burdens on their citizens are unjustified, according to Kan Pacific; Kan Pacific reiterates that any expenses arising from written translation costs would be modest. See id. at 33–34. Accordingly, Kan Pacific notes that no foreign nation has filed an amicus brief, inferring from this that foreign nations believe the effect of written translation costs would be minimal. See id. at 34.

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Analysis

Subsection 1920(6) of Title 28 of the U.S. Code authorizes federal courts to award costs covering the compensation of interpreters to prevailing parties. See28 U.S.C. § 1920(6). The Ninth Circuit held that the term “interpreter” encompasses document translators. See Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd., 633 F.3d 1218, 1222 (9th Cir. 2011). The Supreme Court must now determine whether to uphold the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, or whether to adopt Taniguchi’s contention that the term “interpreters” should be limited to oral translators of spoken language. See Question Presented.

The Plain Meaning of “Interpreters”

Taniguchi argues that the plain meaning of “interpreters” does not encompass written document translators. See Brief for Petitioner at 12. Taniguchi contends that both ordinary and legal dictionaries define “interpreters” as oral translators of languages, and that many dictionaries explicitly render obsolete the application of the term “interpreters” to document translators. See id. at 1315. Taniguchi asserts that professional court interpreters, as well as interpreting and translating organizations, collectively recognize a distinction between “interpreters” and “translators.” See id. at 17, 20–21. For example, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators has explained that “translators” work exclusively with written documents, while “interpreters” work exclusively with speech. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in Support of Petitioner at 56. Further, Taniguchi contends that many government agencies, such as the Department of Justice and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (“AOUSC”), have also recognized the same distinction between “interpreters” and “translators” in legislative guidance materials. See id. at 2324. Taniguchi also asserts that the other U.S. Code sections containing the term “interpreters” recognize this distinction, and that applying the term to document translators would therefore violate the U.S. Code's consistency. See id. at 30, 32.

In contrast, Kan Pacific argues that the plain meaning of "interpreters" does encompass written document translators. See Brief for Respondent, Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd. at 11. Kan Pacific points out that many ordinary and legal dictionaries, such as Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (“Webster’s”), define “interpreters” as language translators, especially those who translate orally. See id. at 12. Kan Pacific argues that “especially” is not synonymous with “only,” and that the definition is therefore not limited to oral translators. See id. at 13. Kan Pacific also contends that other dictionary entries cited by Taniguchi are either well out of date or are abridged editions of Webster’s. See id. at 15. Kan Pacific also points out that the word “interpreters” has been commonly used in opinions by courts, including the Supreme Court, to interchangeably describe oral and written document translators. See id. at 17–18. Further, Kan Pacific contends that, following the enactment of the Court Interpreter’s Act (“Act”) - part of which became 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6) - the Director of the AOUSC published notices detailing interpreters’ duties under the Act, which included translating documents. See id. at 39–40.

Statutory Structure

Taniguchi argues that the Act’s structure confirms that the plain meaning of "interpreters" should be limited to oral translators. See Brief for Petitioner at 25. Taniguchi points out that section 2 of the Act contained the Act’s major substantive provisions, and that section 7 is codified in 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6). See id. at 26, 27. Taniguchi asserts that section 2 addressed interpreters’ roles in federal courts, specifying that interpreters’ services must be conducted “simultaneously” or “consecutively” with spoken language during live proceedings. See id. at 26. Taniguchi argues that, when Congress uses identical words throughout multiple provisions of a statute, the words are intended to have identical meanings. See id. at 27. Thus, Taniguchi contends that “interpreters” in section 7 should carry the same meaning as it does in section 2, limiting compensation to services conducted “simultaneously” or “consecutively” with spoken language during live proceedings. See id. at 27.

In contrast, Kan Pacific argues that the Act’s statutory structure does not confirm that the plain meaning of "interpreters" should be limited to oral translators. See Brief for Respondent at 35. Kan Pacific points out that section 2 and section 7 of the Act use different language. See id. at 37. Kan Pacific argues that, when Congress uses different language in different parts of the same statute, it is assumed that different meanings are intended. See id. Kan Pacific points out that section 2 discusses “interpreters in the courts of the United States,” while section 7 covers “interpreters” generally. See id. at 37. Kan Pacific argues that the “courts of the United States” qualifier in section 2 demonstrates that Congress intended “interpreters” in section 7 to have a broader meaning. See id. at 37–38.

Legislative History

Taniguchi argues that 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6)’s legislative history confirms that the plain meaning of "interpreters" should be limited to oral translators. SeeBrief for Petitionerat 33. Taniguchi points out that several Congressional reports prior to enactment demonstrate that the Act was passed to address problems regarding the oral interpretation of legal proceedings, and to ensure that non-English speaking defendants are able to comprehend courtroom dialogue. See id. Taniguchi also points out that Congress rejected a draft of the Act that required compensation for “limited document translation” after hearing arguments detailing the costs of such written translation. See id. at 34. Taniguchi asserts that the draft required Spanish-language portions of court records in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico to be translated into English for purposes of appeals. See id. at 34–35. Taniguchi contends that Congress could not have intended to implement Kan Pacific’s expansive definition of “interpreter” after rejecting a much more limited proposal for being too costly. See id. at 35. Taniguchi also points out that no statement in the legislative history indicates that Congress intended 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6) to apply to document translators. See id. at 36.

In contrast, Kan Pacific argues that 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6)’s legislative history does not confirm that the plain meaning of "interpreters" should be limited to oral translators. See Brief for Respondent at 41. Kan Pacific points out that Congress used “interpreter” and “translator” interchangeably in the Act’s legislative history documents referenced by Taniguchi. See id. at 44. Kan Pacific contends that, even if the Congressional reports referenced by Taniguchi triggered the statute’s enactment, they only prove that the Act was intended to include oral interpretation, not that the Act was intended to exclude written translation. See id. at 41–42. Kan Pacific argues that Taniguchi’s reference to the rejected draft permitting compensation for written translation costs in Puerto Rico is irrelevant. See id. at 43. Kan Pacific contends that the rejected provision mandated written translations that the parties might not have otherwise requested, potentially imposing unnecessary expenses on the parties. See id. Kan Pacific points out that, in the circumstances of this case, the prevailing party has voluntarily requested the written translation, and the court is therefore allocating necessary costs that have already been expended. See id. Kan Pacific also points out that no statement in the legislative history indicates that Congress did not intend 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6) to apply to document translators. See id.

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Conclusion

In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether the phrase "compensation of interpreters" in 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6) permits courts to award costs incurred in translating written documents. Taniguchi argues that the statute’s plain meaning, structure, and legislative history confirm that the term“interpreters” should be limited to oral translators of spoken language, while Kan Pacific maintains that “interpreters” should also encompass written document translators. The decision has the potential to raise the monetary liability faced by litigants, especially in cases involving non-English documents, which could deter such litigants from filing meritorious claims.

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Authors

Prepared by: Heather Byrne and Judah Druck

Edited by: Eric Schulman

Additional Sources

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Edited by: