The ability to recover attorney’s fees against the federal government is a consideration before initiating a dispute against the government, whether in federal court or in an administrative proceeding.
The Equal Access to Justice Act (referred to as the “EAJA”) authorizes a court to award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to a prevailing, eligible contractor in an action brought by or against the United States. 28 U.S.C. s. 2412(d)(1)(a). The purpose of the EAJA has been explained as follows:
“The purpose of the EAJA is to eliminate legal expenses as a barrier to challenges of unreasonable government action. Accordingly, the EAJA authorizes this court to award attorney fees and expenses incurred by contractors who prevail in litigation against the government provided the contractors do not exceed certain size and net worth limitations. The government may escape liability for legal expenses if its actions were substantially justified or if special circumstances make the award unjust. The burden is on the government to present a substantial justification for its actions.”
Community Heating & Plumbing Co., Inc. v. Garrett, 2 F.3d 1143, 1145 (Fed.Cir. 1993) (internal citations and quotations omitted)
First, the contractor needs to be eligible to recover fees under the EAJA. Not every contractor is eligible. Such eligible contractors are defined by the EAJA as:
“(i) an individual whose net worth did not exceed $2,000,000 at the time the civil action was filed, or (ii) any owner of an unincorporated business, or any partnership, corporation, association, unit of local government, or organization, the net worth of which did not exceed $7,000,000 at the time the civil action was filed, and which had not more than 500 employees at the time the civil action was filed….”
28 U.S.C. 2412 (d)(2)(B)
Second, the contractor needs to be the prevailing party. A prevailing contractor under the EAJA is a contractor that recovers a judgment on the merits in its favor. Ulysses, Inc. v. U.S., 117 Fed.Cl. 772, 777 (Fed.Cl. 2014). The government however, can avoid the award of fees against it if it proves it was substantially justified in advancing its position. Substantial justification is a subjective standard determined on a case-by-case basis:
“In determining whether to award attorney’s fees under EAJA, the Court looks to whether the Government’s position prior to and throughout litigation had a reasonable basis in both law and fact. While the appropriateness of the Government’s position might vary on individual matters, the Court considers the totality of circumstances to determine whether that position was substantially justified. In the words of the United States Supreme Court, ‘While the parties’ postures on individual matters may be more or less justified, the EAJA … favors treating a case as an inclusive whole, rather than as atomized line-items.’”
Ulysses, 117 Fed.Cl. at 778 (internal quotations and citations omitted).
Stated more simplistically, the government must prove that it advanced a position “justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.” BCPeabody Construction Services, Inc. v. U.S., 117 Fed.Cl. 408, 413 (Fed.Cl. 2014) (internal quotation and citation omitted).
And third, even if the contractor is eligible to recover attorney’s fees under the EAJA and prevails against the government, this does NOT mean that it will recover 100% of the fees it incurred in the action. The EAJA provides a statutory cap of $125/hour for attorney’s fees time unless the “court determines that an increase in the cost of living or a special factor, such as the limited availability of qualified attorneys or the proceedings involved, justifies a higher fee.” 28 U.S.C. s. 2412(d)(2)(A). Unfortunately, exceeding this hourly cap has nothing to do with the novelty of the issues, the competence of the attorney, or the results obtained. BCPeadbody Construction Services, 117 Fed.Cl. at 415. This means that contractors should not bank on exceeding the statutory cap in recovering attorney’s fees against the government.
Importantly, there is also a relevant EAJA for administrative proceedings initiated prior to or instead of any civil action in court. 5 U.S.C. s. 504. This administrative EAJA largely mirrors the EAJA discussed above for civil actions, but applies to administrative proceedings. See Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991).
Before proceeding with a dispute against the federal government in federal court or an administrative proceeding, consider whether you have a basis under the EAJA to recover attorney’s fees.
Please contact David Adelstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.