(CN) – Attorney’s fees are awarded to litigants, not to their attorneys, the Supreme Court ruled Monday. The justices rejected a lawyer’s claim that the government had no right to use an attorney’s fee award to offset her client’s federal debt.
Catherine Ratliff represented Ruby Willows Kills Ree in a Social Security benefits claim and won. The district court granted Ree about $2,100 in attorney’s fees, but before it paid the money, it discovered that Ree owed the government money. The government decided to use the fee award to offset a portion of Ree’s federal debt.
Ratliff intervened, claiming the attorney’s fees belonged to her, not to her client.
The district court pointed out that the law directs fees to be awarded to the “prevailing party,” so Ratliff lacked standing to challenge the proposed offset.
The 8th Circuit in St. Louis reversed, saying the fees are actually awarded to prevailing parties’ attorneys.
The Supreme Court unanimously backed the district court’s analysis and reversed the 8th Circuit.
The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) “‘awards’ the fees to the litigant, and thus subjects them to a federal administrative offset if the litigant has outstanding federal debts,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she agreed that fees belong to the litigant and not the attorney, but said that doesn’t mean the award is subject to offset.
“In my view, it is likely both that Congress did not consider that question and that, had it done so, it would not have wanted EAJA fee awards to be subject to offset,” she wrote.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens joined Sotomayor’s concurring opinion.