496 U.S. 154 (1990), 89-601, Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Jean

Docket Nº:No. 89-601
Citation:496 U.S. 154, 110 S.Ct. 2316, 110 L.Ed.2d 134
Party Name:Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Jean
Case Date:June 04, 1990
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 154

496 U.S. 154 (1990)

110 S.Ct. 2316, 110 L.Ed.2d 134

Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service

v.

Jean

No. 89-601

United States Supreme Court

June 4, 1990

Argued April 23, 1990

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) directs a court to award fees and other expenses to private parties who prevail in litigation against the United States if, inter alia, the Government's position was not "substantially justified." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). The District Court found that respondents were prevailing parties within the meaning of the EAJA, the Government's position was not substantially justified, and there were no other special circumstances [110 S.Ct. 2317] that would make a fee award unjust. The Court of Appeals upheld these findings, but remanded for recalculation of fees. Although the Government concedes that fees for time and expenses incurred in applying for fees are appropriate, it contends that respondents are ineligible for fees for services rendered during the substantial litigation over the fees unless the Court finds that the Government's position in the fee litigation itself was not substantially justified.

Held: A second "substantial justification" finding is not required before EAJA fees are awarded for fee litigation itself. Pp. 158-166.

(a) The EAJA's "substantial justification" requirement is a single finding that operates as a clear threshold for determining a prevailing party's fee eligibility. Once a litigant has met all of the eligibility conditions for fees, the district court has the discretion to adjust the amount of fees for various portions of the litigation, guided by reason and the statutory criteria. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424. There is no textual support for the position that the Government may assert a "substantial justification" defense at multiple stages of an action, since the EAJA refers only to a single "position," §§ 2412(d)(1)(A) and (d)(2)(D), that the Government has taken in the past, § 2412(d)(1)(B), in "any civil action," § 2412(d)(1)(A). Pp. 158-162.

(b) The Government's argument that automatic awards of "fees for fees" will encourage exorbitant fee requests, generate needless litigation, and unreasonably burden the federal fisc is rejected. First, no fee award is automatic, since a district court always has discretion to fix the amount of the award once eligibility is established. In contrast, requiring courts to make a separate "substantial justification" finding regarding the Government's opposition to fee requests would multiply litigation. Second, the EAJA's purpose to eliminate the average person's financial

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disincentive to challenge unreasonable governmental actions would be defeated if the Government could impose on prevailing parties the costs of litigating fee requests, costs that may exceed those incurred in litigating the claim's merits. Pp. 162-166.

863 F.2d 759 (CA 11 1988), affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) directs a court to award "fees and other expenses" to private parties who prevail in litigation against the United States if, among other conditions, the position of the United States was not "substantially justified."1 In many cases, parties are able to resolve by stipulation a claim for fees under the EAJA. In some cases, however, a fee application will prompt the Government to litigate aspects of the fee request or require the

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court to convene a hearing before deciding if an award of fees and expenses is authorized. The question in this case is whether a prevailing party is ineligible for fees for the services rendered during such a proceeding unless the Government's position in the fee litigation itself is not "substantially justified."

Because the question for decision is so narrow -- affecting only eligibility for compensation for services rendered for fee litigation [110 S.Ct. 2318] rather than the amount that may be appropriately awarded for such services -- it is not necessary to restate the protracted history of this vigorously contested litigation.2 It is sufficient to note that the District Court expressly found that respondents

were the prevailing parties within the meaning of the Act, that the government's position was not substantially justified, and that there are no other special circumstances that would make an award unjust.3

The Court of Appeals upheld these findings. Jean v. Nelson, 863 F.2d

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759, 765-769 (CA11 1988). After an extensive review of the record developed at the fee hearing, however, the Court of Appeals decided that certain errors required that the case "be remanded for recalculation of attorney's fees and expenses." Id. at 780. In view of this holding, we must assume that at least some of the positions the Government took regarding the proper fee were substantially justified, even though its position on the merits of the litigation was not. Thus, the record squarely presents the question whether the District Court must make a second finding of no "substantial justification" before awarding respondent any fees for the fee litigation.

The Government concedes that fees for time and expenses incurred in applying for fees are appropriate, but takes the position that, unless the court finds that the Government's position in the fee litigation itself was not substantially justified, fees for any litigation about fees are not recoverable.4 It is respondents' position that fee litigation is a component part of an integrated case, and that, if the statutory prerequisites for an award of fees for prevailing in the case are satisfied, the award presumptively encompasses services for fee litigation. Because the Courts of Appeals have resolved this question differently, we granted certiorari. 493 U.S. 1055 (1990).5

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I

Section 2412(d)(1)(A) of Title 28 provides:

Except as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses, in addition to any costs awarded pursuant to subsection [110 S.Ct. 2319] (a), incurred by that party in any civil action (other than cases sounding in tort), including proceedings for judicial review of agency action, brought by or against the United States in any court having jurisdiction of that action, unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.

Thus, eligibility for a fee award in any civil action requires: (1) that the claimant be a "prevailing party"; (2) that the Government's position was not "substantially justified"; (3) that no "special circumstances make an award unjust"; and, (4) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(B), that any fee application be submitted to the court within 30 days of final judgment in the action and be supported by an itemized statement. Only the application of the "substantially justified" condition is at issue in this case.6 The most telling answer to the Government's submission that it may assert a "substantial justification" defense at multiple

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stages of an action is the complete absence of any textual support for this position. Subsection (d)(1)(A) refers to an award of fees "in any civil action" without any reference to separate parts of the litigation, such as discovery requests, fees or appeals. The reference to "the position of the United States" in the singular also suggests that the court need make only one finding about the justification of that...

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