attorney fees - EAJA - offset - indiv. debt owed to government
Astrue v. Ratliff - US Supreme Court - June 14, 2010 - http://www.supremec
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY v. RATLIFF
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT
No. 08–1322. Argued February 22, 2010—Decided June 14, 2010
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)
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 preexisting debt to the Government. Pp. 3–11.
(a) Nothing in EAJA contradicts this Court’s longstanding view that the term "prevailing party" in attorney’s fees statutes is a "term of art" that refers to the prevailing litigant. See, e.g., Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dept. of Health and Human Resources, 532 U. S. 598, 603. That the term has its usual meaning in subsection (d)(1)(A) is underscored by the fact that subsection (d)(1)(B) and other provisions clearly distinguish the party who receives the fees award (the litigant) from the attorney who performed the work that generated the fees. The Court disagrees with Ratliff’s assertion that subsection (d)(1)(A)’s use of the verb "award" nonetheless renders §2412(d) fees payable directly to a prevailingparty’s attorney. The dictionaries show that, in the litigation context, the transitive verb "award" has the settled meaning of giving or assigning by judicial decree. Its plain meaning in subsection (d)(1)(A) is thus that the court shall "give or assign by . . . judicial determination" to the "prevailing party" (here, Ree) attorney’s fees in theamount sought and substantiated under, inter alia, subsection (d)(1)(B). That the prevailing party’s attorney may have a beneficial interest or a contractual right in the fees does not alter this conclusion. Pp. 3–6.
(b) The Court rejects Ratliff’s argument that other EAJA provisions, combined with the Social Security Act (SSA) and the Government’s practice of paying some EAJA fees awards directly to attorneys in Social Security cases, render §2412(d) at least ambiguous onthe question presented here, and that these other provisions resolvethe ambiguity in her favor. Even accepting that §2412(d) is ambiguous¸ the provisions and practices Ratliff identifies do not alter theCourt’s conclusion. Subsection (d)(1)(B) and other provisions differentiate between attorneys and prevailing parties, and treat attorneys on par with other service providers, in a manner that forecloses the conclusion that attorneys have a right to direct payment of subsection (d)(1)(A) awards. Nor is the necessity of such payments established by the SSA provisions on which Ratliff relies. That SSA fees awards are payable directly to a prevailing claimant’s attorney, see 42 U. S. C. §406(b)(1)(A)
11. 540 F. 3d 800, reversed and remanded.
THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. SO-
TOMAYOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which STEVENS and GINSBURG, JJ., joined.