Astrue v. Ratliff

PETITIONER: Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security
RESPONDENT: Catherine G. Ratliff
LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Western Division

DOCKET NO.: 08-1322
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 560 US 586 (2010)
GRANTED: Sep 30, 2009
ARGUED: Feb 22, 2010
DECIDED: Jun 14, 2010

ADVOCATES:
Anthony A. Yang - on behalf of the petitioner
James D. Leach - for the respondent

Facts of the case

Catherine Ratliff was the attorney for Ruby Kills Ree in her successful suit against the Social Security Administration for Social Security benefits. The district court also granted Kills Ree’s motion for an award of attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). Before paying the fee award, the government discovered that Kills Ree owed the government a debt that predated the fee award and accordingly sought to offset the fee award against the debt. Ratliff then intervened in the case to challenge the offset and argued that the fee award belonged to her and therefore could not be used to offset Kills Ree’s debt. The district court held that the offset was proper because the fee award goes to the “prevailing party,” not directly to the attorney. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed and held that precedent established that EAJA fee awards go to the attorney.

Question

Can an award of attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act properly be used to offset the prevailing party’s preexisting debt to the government?

Media for Astrue v. Ratliff

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 22, 2010 in Astrue v. Ratliff

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 14, 2010 in Astrue v. Ratliff

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has our opinion this morning in case 08-1322, Astrue Vs Ratliff.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Petitioner Michael Astrue is United States Commissioner of Social Security.

Respondent Catherine Ratliff is an attorney represented her client in a successful lawsuit against the Commission for Social Security benefits.

Because Ratliff's client prevailed under claim that the district court granted the unopposed motion Ratliff filed for award of attorney's fees under Section 204 (d) of the Equal Access to Justice Act or EAJA, codified at 28 U.S.C., Section 2412 (d). Before the government paid the fees award however, it discovered that Ratliff's client owed the United States a debt that predated the award.

Accordingly the United States notified that district court, that it planned to exercise its statutory authority to withhold payment of the fees award as an offset against that debt.

Ratliff intervened and objected to the proposed offset on the grounds that EAJA makes an attorney's fee award payable directly to the prevailing litigant's attorney and thus such awards cannot be offset to debts owed by the litigant to the government.

The district court rejected this argument, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that EAJA makes the attorney's fees, in this case, payable directly to Ratliff, the attorney.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The party's dispute is governed by Section 24 (d) (1) (A) of EAJA.

That provision states in pertinent part that a court shall award to a prevailing party the attorney's fees at issue here.

We have long held that the term prevailing party in attorney's fees statutes is a legal term of art that refers to the prevailing litigant not to the prevailing litigant's attorney.

We conclude that the term carries the same settled meaning in Section 2412 (d) (1) (A) of EAJA.

We base this conclusion on the plain text of the statute and on our precedence and reject for the reasons set forth in our opinion, Ratliff's arguments that the Court of Appeals contrary judgment is supported by other provisions of EAJA along with certain provisions of the Social Security Act and the government's practice of paying fees awards directly to attorneys in some Social Security cases.

Justice Sotomayor has filed the concurring opinion in which Justices Stevens and Ginsburg have joined.