JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) directs a court to award "fees and other expenses" to private parties who prevail in litigation against the United States if, among other conditions, the position of the United States was not "substantially justified."
Because the question for decision is so narrow — affecting only eligibility for compensation for services rendered for fee litigation rather than the amount that may be appropriately awarded for such services — it is not necessary to restate the protracted history of this vigorously contested litigation.
Petitioners concede that fees for time and expenses incurred in applying for fees are appropriate, but take the position that, unless the court finds that their position in the fee litigation itself was not substantially justified, fees for any litigation about fees are not recoverable.
Section 2412(d)(1)(A) of Title 28 provides:
Thus, eligibility for a fee award in any civil action requires: (1) that the claimant be a "prevailing party"; (2) that the Government's position was not "substantially justified"; (3) that no "special circumstances make an award unjust"; and, (4) pursuant to 28 U. S. C. § 2412(d)(1)(B), that any fee application be submitted to the court within 30 days of final judgment in the action and be supported by an itemized statement. Only the application of the "substantially justified" condition is at issue in this case.
The most telling answer to petitioners' submission that they may assert a "substantial justification" defense at multiple
In 1985, Congress amended the EAJA, adding the following definition:
The fact that the "position" is again denominated in the singular, although it may encompass both the agency's prelitigation conduct and the Department of Justice's subsequent litigation positions, buttresses the conclusion that only one threshold determination for the entire civil action is to be made.
The single finding that the Government's position lacks substantial justification, like the determination that a claimant is a "prevailing party," thus operates as a one-time threshold for fee eligibility. In EAJA cases, the court first must determine if the applicant is a "prevailing party" by evaluating the degree of success obtained. If the Government then asserts an exception for substantial justification or for circumstances that render an award unjust, the court must make a second finding regarding these additional threshold conditions. As we held in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983), the "prevailing party" requirement is "a generous formulation that brings the plaintiff only across the
In Hensley, we emphasized that it is appropriate to allow the district court discretion to determine the amount of a fee award, given its "superior understanding of the litigation and the desirability of avoiding frequent appellate review of what essentially are factual matters." Id., at 437. The EAJA prescribes a similar flexibility. Section § 2412(d)(1)(C) empowers the district court, "in its discretion," to "reduce the amount to be awarded pursuant to this subsection, or deny an award, to the extent that the prevailing party during the course of the proceedings engaged in conduct which unduly and unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the matter in controversy." This exception to a fee award was repeated in the 1985 amendment that added a definition of "position of the United States," by there excluding fees and expenses "for any portion of the litigation in which the party has unreasonably protracted the proceedings." Supra, at 159; § 2412(d)(2)(D). Thus, absent unreasonably dilatory conduct by the prevailing party in "any portion" of the litigation, which would justify denying fees for that portion, a fee award presumptively encompasses all aspects of the civil action.
Any given civil action can have numerous phases. While the parties' postures on individual matters may be more or less justified, the EAJA — like other fee-shifting statutes — favors
Petitioners further argue, as a matter of policy, that the allowance of an automatic award of "fees for fees" will encourage exorbitant fee requests, generate needless litigation, and
First, no award of fees is "automatic." Eligibility for fees is established upon meeting the four conditions set out by the statute, but a district court will always retain substantial discretion in fixing the amount of an EAJA award. Exorbitant, unfounded, or procedurally defective fee applications — like any other improper position that may unreasonably protract proceedings — are matters that the district court can recognize and discount.
Second, the specific purpose of the EAJA is to eliminate for the average person the financial disincentive to challenge unreasonable governmental actions. See Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U. S., at 883.
The "substantial justification" requirement of the EAJA establishes a clear threshold for determining a prevailing party's eligibility for fees, one that properly focuses on the governmental misconduct giving rise to the litigation. The EAJA further provides district courts discretion to adjust the amount of fees for various portions of the litigation,
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
"In our view, it is appropriate to include reasonable fees and expenses incurred in preparing a fee application as part of any award of fees for the merits phase of the litigation. But . . . the government should not be required to pay for attorney's fees and expenses incurred in separate litigation over the availability and size of the fee award unless the position of the government in this distinct phase of the case was not substantially justified." Brief for Petitioners 15-16 (footnote omitted).
"When the case is litigated to a final decision by a court or adjudicative officer (or even when the case is settled after only some litigation procedures) the evaluation of the government's position will be straightforward, since the parties will have already aired the facts that led the agency to bring the action. No additional discovery of the government's position will be necessary, for EAJA petition purposes." H. R. Rep. No. 99-120, p. 13 (1985) (emphasis added).
" `(a) The Congress finds that certain individuals, partnerships, corporations, and labor and other organizations may be deterred from seeking review of, or defending against, unreasonable governmental action because of the expense involved in securing the vindication of their rights in civil actions and in administrative proceedings.
" `(b) The Congress further finds that because of the greater resources and expertise of the United States the standard for an award of fees against the United States should be different from the standard governing an award against a private litigant, in certain situations.
" `(c) It is the purpose of this title —
" `(1) to diminish the deterrent effect of seeking review of, or defending against, governmental action by providing in specified situations an award of attorney fees, expert witness fees, and other costs against the United States; and
" `(2) to insure the applicability in actions by or against the United States of the common law and statutory exceptions to the `American rule' respecting the award of attorney fees.' " Congressional Findings and Purposes, note following 5 U. S. C. § 504.
"[T]he Government with its greater resources and expertise can in effect coerce compliance with its position. Where compliance is coerced, precedent may be established on the basis of an uncontested order rather than the thoughtful presentation and consideration of opposing views. In fact, there is evidence that small businesses are the target of agency action precisely because they do not have the resources to fully litigate the issue. This kind of truncated justice undermines the integrity of the decisionmaking process.
"The exception created by [the EAJA] focuses primarily on those individuals for whom cost may be a deterrent to vindicating their rights. The bill rests on the premise that a party who chooses to litigate an issue against the Government is not only representing his or her own vested interest but is also refining and formulating public policy. An adjudication or civil action provides a concrete, adversarial test of Government regulation and thereby insures the legitimacy and fairness of the law. An adjudication, for example, may show that the policy or factual foundation underlying an agency rule is erroneous or inaccurate, or it may provide a vehicle for developing or announcing more precise rules. . . . Where parties are serving a public purpose, it is unfair to ask them to finance through their tax dollars unreasonable Government action and also bear the costs of vindicating their rights." Id., at 10.
"Providing an award of fees to a prevailing party represents one way to improve citizen access to courts and administrative proceedings. When there is an opportunity to recover costs, a party does not have to choose between acquiescing to an unreasonable Government order or prevailing to his financial detriment. . . . By allowing a decision to contest Government action to be based on the merits of the case rather than the cost of litigating, [the EAJA] helps assure that administrative decisions reflect informed deliberation." S. Rep. No. 96-253, p. 7 (1979).