Wednesday, June 16, 2010

SCOTUS Decides that EAJA Awards Are Payable to Litigants

The Supreme Court recently decided Astrue v. Ratliff, a case concerning fees awarded under the Equal Access to Justice Act. Here is an excerpt from the Syllabus:

Respondent Ratliff was Ruby Kills Ree’s attorney in Ree’s successful suit against the United States Social Security Administration for Social Security benefits. The District Court granted Ree’s unopposed motion for attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), which provides, inter alia, that “a court shall award to a prevailing party … fees and other expenses … in any civil action … brought by or against the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2412(d)(1)(A). Before paying the fees award, the Government discovered that Ree owed the United States a debt that predated the award. Accordingly, it sought an administrative offset against the award under 31 U. S. C. §3716, which subjects to offset all “funds payable by the United States,” §3701(a)(1), to an individual who owes certain delinquent federal debts, see §3701(b), unless, e.g., payment is exempted by statute or regulation. See, e.g., §3716(e)(2). The parties to this case have not established that any such exemption applies to §2412(d) fees awards, which, as of 2005, are covered by the Treasury Department’s Offset Program (TOP). After the Government notified Ree that it would apply TOP to offset her fees award against a portion of her debt, Ratliff intervened, challenging the offset on the grounds that §2412(d) fees belong to a litigant’s attorney and thus may not be used to satisfy the litigant’s federal debts. The District Court held that because §2412(d) directs that fees be awarded to the “prevailing party,” not to her attorney, Ratliff lacked standing to challenge the offset. The Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that under its precedent, EAJA attorney’s fees are awarded to prevailing parties’ attorneys.

Held: A §2412(d)(1)(A) attorney’s fees award is payable to the litigant and is therefore subject to an offset to satisfy the litigant’s pre-existing debt to the Government. Pp. 3–11.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Sotomayor, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Stevens and Ginsburg, JJ., joined.


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