June 14, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Astrue v. Ratliff

On June 14, 2010, the Supreme Court decided Astrue v. Ratliff, No. 08-1322, holding unanimously that an award of attorneys' fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) is payable to the litigant, not his or her attorney, and therefore may be offset against any amounts that the litigant owes to the United States.

Ruby Willows Kills Ree prevailed in her claim against the United States for social-security benefits. Catherine Ratliff represented Ree in the litigation. The district court awarded Ree $2,112.60 in attorneys' fees under 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)(1)(A), part of the EAJA. Before the United States paid the fee award, it discovered that Ree owed an outstanding debt to the federal government that was greater than the amount of the fee award. The United States sought to offset the debt by the amount of the fee award to satisfy part of Ree's debt to the government. Ratliff intervened in the proceeding, arguing that the fee award belonged to her, as the attorney, and therefore was not subject to offset against Ree's debt to the government.

The trial court held that an EAJA fee award belongs to the litigant, not the attorney, and therefore was subject to offset in this case. The Eighth Circuit reversed on the basis of prior Circuit precedent, but it acknowledged that its decision was not in accord with "a literal interpretation of the EAJA" and that there was a split among the federal circuits on the question.

The Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit's decision. It held that the language of section 2412(d)(1)(A) is unambiguous: courts must award fees to "a prevailing party," and the "prevailing party" is the litigant herself. Other provisions of the EAJA distinguish attorneys from prevailing parties, which supports the conclusion that an attorney for a prevailing party is not a "prevailing party" who is entitled to an award of fees. Thus, because the fee award belongs to the litigant, the award generally may be offset against amounts that the litigant owes to the federal government.

Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion in which Justices Stevens and Ginsburg joined.

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