Equal Access To Justice Act: When Are Fees "Incurred"?

As you may recall from previous articles, if the FAA pursues an enforcement or civil penalty action and then loses, the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”) allows a certificate holder or target of the civil penalty action to seek reimbursement from the FAA for the attorney’s fees and expenses incurred by the certificate holder or target of the civil penalty action to defend against the claims asserted by the FAA. The EAJA is found at 5 U.S.C. 504 and is implemented in 49 CFR 826.

According to 49 CFR 826.1,

The Equal Access to Justice Act, 5 U.S.C. 504 (the Act), provides for the award of attorney fees and other expenses to eligible individuals and entities who are parties to certain administrative proceedings (adversary adjudications) before the National Transportation Safety Board (Board). An eligible party may receive an award when it prevails over the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), unless the Government agency's position in the proceeding was substantially justified or special circumstances make an award unjust.

In order to award EAJA fees to a certificate holder or target of a civil penalty action who is requesting reimbursement of fees (the “Applicant”), one of the issues an administrative law judge ("ALJ") must decide is whether the fees were actually “incurred” by the Applicant. In a situation where the Applicant has paid an attorney for representation throughout the enforcement process out of the Applicant’s own pocket, this is easy. Conversely, when an Applicant’s employer or union pays the fees then the Applicant did not incur the fees for purposes of EAJA. However, if the employer advances the fees and the Applicant is obligated to repay those fees regardless of the outcome of the action, then the Applicant would also be considered to have incurred the fees.

Also, it may be possible for an Applicant to incur fees by retaining an attorney on a contingent fee basis under which the attorney would only receive payment in the event of an EAJA recovery. However, this type of arrangement must be documented at the time the attorney is retained in order for it to qualify under EAJA. In general, documentation of the payment of, or obligation for, the fees is critical to recovery under EAJA.

But what if an applicant doesn't have documentation to show an agreement to pay or be responsible for payment to the attorney who represented the Applicant before the Board? Well, a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia addressed this very issue.

In Roberts v. National Transportation Safety Board the Court was asked to review a decision by the Board affirming an ALJ's rejection of Mr. Roberts' EAJA application on the basis that Mr. Roberts had not actually "incurred" attorney's fees. The ALJ found that Mr. Roberts' attorney also represented his employer and, in the absence of any written agreement between Mr. Roberts and either his employer or the attorneys to the contrary, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Roberts' employer had paid the attorneys. As a result, the ALJ held that Mr. Roberts had not personally incurred the attorney's fees as required by EAJA. The Board then affirmed the ALJ's decision, even though it reversed the ALJ's earlier finding that the employer had agreed to pay for Mr. Roberts' attorney's fees.

On appeal to the Court of Appeals, Mr. Roberts argued that the Board's determination that he had not personally incurred the fees was arbitrary and capricious. The Court agreed and found that the Board's refusal to consider that Mr. Roberts may have been obligated to pay attorney's fees under a quantum meruit theory (also called an implied contract theory) was arbitrary and capricious. The Court observed that Alabama law (the state law applicable to any relationship Mr. Roberts had with his attorney) implies a promise to pay compensation for services rendered to another that are knowingly accepted even in the absence of a valid written contract. The Court went on to observe that the Board's conclusion that Mr. Roberts had not proven that he was responsible for attorney's fees because the attorney's invoices didn't clearly say so defied logic. And the Court determined the Board's reliance upon the absence of an express contract as dispositive was in error.

However, although the Court held that Mr. Roberts had incurred attorney's fees, it noted that all of the fees and expenses claimed by Mr. Roberts may not necessarily be eligible for reimbursement. The Court remanded the case back to the NTSB for it to consider which submitted fees and expenses were supported by sufficient documentation and whether any reduction in award is appropriate.

Conclusion

This decision will certainly help anyone applying for an EAJA award after having to defend themselves against an unjustified certificate or civil penalty action. However, properly documenting both the obligation to pay fees, as well as the amount of the fees is still recommended. But at least the Court's decision provides the opportunity for an applicant to claim fees have been incurred even in the absence of a written agreement. And that's a "win" in my book.