Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Jean

PETITIONER: Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service
LOCATION: State Highway 55, LaGrange, NY

DOCKET NO.: 89-601
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 496 US 154 (1990)
ARGUED: Apr 23, 1990
DECIDED: Jun 04, 1990

Ira Jay Kurzban - on behalf of the Respondents
Paul J. Larkin, Jr. - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Jean

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 1990 in Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Jean

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument first this morning in Number 89-601, the Commissioner of the... Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Marie Lucie Jean.

Mr. Larkin.

Paul J. Larkin, Jr.:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The Equal Access to Justice Act generally requires the United States to pay reasonable attorneys fees to a prevailing party in a non-tort civil action if the position of the United States is not substantially justified.

The question in this case is whether the substantial justification component of that statute applies at the fee stage of litigation, the so-called fees for fees question.

For three reasons we believe that it does.

First, the fee stage of the case is part of the overall civil action.

Indeed, if the fee stage of a case were not part of the civil action, then a prevailing party could not recover attorneys fees for that phase of a lawsuit at all.

Second, Congress limited the liability of the United States for attorneys fees to those instances where the position of the United States was not substantially justified.

Nothing in the text of the statute renders the United States automatically liable for attorneys fees at any stage of the lawsuit, at the merits or at the fee stage.

And third, the best reading of the text of the act, and the one that best serves its purposes, is that the substantial justification requirement applies at the fee stage of a lawsuit.

The fee stage and the merit stage are conceptually distinct, the legal issues involved are quite different, and the United States can and often does take different positions in fact and law at each stage of a lawsuit.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, what is there in the statute which justifies our making the distinction between the merits stage and the fee stage?

You have mentioned fee stage very adroitly now six times, I've noticed.

Aren't we going to hear that there is no basis for that dichotomy?

Paul J. Larkin, Jr.:

No, Your Honor, it is that point where the parties really disagree, and it is that point that I was about to address right now.

Let me do so.

And let's start with the text of the statute.

And when you look at the statute we think you first have to look at the forest and not just the trees.

The reason is the very existence of an attorneys fees statute is significant.

It modifies the American rule; it's a partial waiver of sovereign immunity.

What a fee statute does is create a new cause of action for a plaintiff and impose a new form of financial liability on the United States.

In fact, the version of Section 2412 of the Judicial Code that existed before the EAJA was adopted expressly exempted attorneys fees from the costs that could be awarded against the United States in a lawsuit.

The statute itself, therefore, creates an entirely new claim that is separate from the dispute on the merits.

Now that is not, we think, a novel proposition.

This Court's cases, beginning with its 1982 decision in White v. New Hampshire Department of Employment Security, have recognized that the fee stage of a lawsuit involves different issues, and is--

John Paul Stevens:

Mr. Larkin, can I interrupt with something that ran through my mind?

Supposing you have a case in which there is quite a difference between the liability issues and the remedy issues, and you have two separate stages, liability and remedy.

And it is determined that your position on liability was not substantially justified, but there were substantial merit to your objections to the remedy.

Would you... would you just get fees for the liability part of the lawsuit?