JOHN R. GIBSON, Circuit Judge.
The question before us is whether the United States is liable under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(b) (1982), for attorneys' fees incurred by Dr. Bhartur Premachandra in his suit against the Veterans Administration based on an alleged constitutional violation. As we find no basis in the language of the statutes or legislative history to support an award, we reverse the judgment of the district court granting Premachandra fees.
Premachandra is a research endocrinologist with the VA. On December 30, 1980, the VA told him that he would be terminated on January 16, 1981 and that his laboratory must be dismantled by then. Premachandra appealed his termination to the Merit Systems Protection Board. He also filed a suit in federal court, seeking to enjoin the termination and the dismantling of the laboratory pending a hearing before the MSPB. Premachandra alleged that the fifth amendment guaranteed him the right to a pretermination hearing.
The district court denied the preliminary injunction. Premachandra v. Mitts, 509 F.Supp. 424 (E.D.Mo.1981). On appeal, this court stayed the dismantling of the laboratory pending oral argument, when the parties agreed that the laboratory would be left intact until the MSPB ruled. Premachandra prevailed in the MSPB appeal; the VA was ordered to reverse the termination and pay Premachandra's attorneys' fees in the administrative proceedings. We dismissed the injunction appeal as moot. Premachandra v. Mitts, No. 81-1246 (8th Cir. Oct. 27, 1981) (judgment).
On February 26, 1982, Premachandra asked the district court for an attorneys' fee award in the injunction litigation. The court found that Premachandra was a "prevailing party," and entitled to fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (1982) and section 2412(b). Premachandra v. Mitts, 548 F.Supp. 117 (E.D.Mo.1982). The court decided that section 2412(b) supported an award "because § 1988 explicitly allows the award of fees to `prevailing parties' in civil rights actions." Id. at 121. The award was affirmed by a divided panel of this court. Premachandra v. Mitts, 727 F.2d 717 (8th Cir.1984). The panel majority commented: "Candor compels us to admit that both parties' interpretations and supporting arguments are persuasive. The problem we face is deciding which one of the two interpretations is more consistent with Congress' intent." Id. at 725. The panel essentially held that section 2412(b) authorizes fee awards in cases that are analogous to actions brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982). This is tantamount to holding that section 1988 applies in suits against the United States or its officials based on rights analogous to those protected by the laws specifically listed in section 1988. See Lauritzen v. Lehman, 736 F.2d 550, 553 (9th Cir.1984).
We granted rehearing en banc. Premachandra supports the decisions of the district court and the panel with the following reasoning: Section 1988 allows fees for suits brought under section 1983, which covers violations of the Constitution and federal laws by persons acting under color of state law. The defendants' conduct would have been actionable under section 1983 had they acted under color of state law. Thus, section 2412(b) should be interpreted to make the United States liable for fees when it loses a lawsuit based on conduct that would support an award against a party acting under color of state law. Premachandra maintains that this interpretation is consistent with the statute's remedial
The VA argues that section 2412(b) is a limited waiver of sovereign immunity and must be strictly construed. It contends that section 2412(b) authorizes fees only "to the same extent that" another fee-shifting statute — in this case section 1988 — would make "any other party" liable for fees. Section 1988 would not authorize a fee against "any other party" because there has been no violation of any statute encompassed by section 1988. Because no "other party would be liable" for fees under section 1988, the VA argues that the United States is non-liable "to the same extent." This is the majority view. See Holbrook v. Pitt, 748 F.2d 1168, at 1176-77 (7th Cir.1984); Lauritzen, 736 F.2d 553-59; Saxner v. Benson, 727 F.2d 669, 673 (7th Cir.1984); Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, 589 F.Supp. 921, 924-26 (N.D.Cal.1983); Unification Church v. Immigration & Naturalization Service, 574 F.Supp. 93, 95-96 (D.D.C.1983); Venus v. Goodman, 556 F.Supp. 514, 521-22 (W.D.Wis.1983); United States v. Miscellaneous Pornographic Magazines, 541 F.Supp. 122, 127-29 (N.D.Ill.1982).
To decide this issue, we must look primarily to the statute itself, for we believe that the ordinary meaning of its language expresses the legislative purpose. See Immigration & Naturalization Service v. Phinpathya, 464 U.S. 183, 104 S.Ct. 584, 589, 78 L.Ed.2d 401 (1984). Section 2412(b) provides:
Premachandra's claim to fees under the common law was not reached by the district court. Accordingly, we must first examine whether "the terms of any statute * * * specifically" provide for attorneys' fees. The only statute arguably applicable is section 1988, which provides:
Premachandra's underlying lawsuit was brought against federal officials acting in their individual and official capacities. The action was brought to vindicate his alleged fifth amendment due process rights.
Even if it is accepted that section 2412(b) is facially vague or ambiguous, the next step is not to delve into the "ashcans of the legislative process." C. Curtis, It's Your Law 52 (1954). Rather, resort should be had to a more formal expression of congressional intent — the context in which section 2412(b) appears. See Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 11, 82 S.Ct. 585, 591-92, 7 L.Ed.2d 492 (1962); Sierra Club v. Clark, No. 84-5042, slip op. at 7 (8th Cir. Jan. ___, 1984); C. Sands, Statutes and Statutory Construction § 27.02, at 310 (4th ed. 1972). 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A) (1982) provides:
Adopting Premachandra's interpretation of section 2412(b) could render nugatory the "substantially justified" and "special circumstances" limits in section 2412(d). Many of the civil actions for which fees may be sought under subsection (d) are based on violations of federal law or the Constitution. These actions could support suits under section 1983 but for the fact that they involve officials acting under color of federal rather than state law. If subsection (b) allowed fee awards in cases analogous to section 1983 actions, persons prevailing against the United States in a wide variety of civil suits could receive attorneys' fees in cases where the government's position was substantially justified.
Premachandra's response is that the current limitations on section 1983 actions will prevent most parties who sue the government from invoking the "analogous" link to section 1988. It is true now that not every violation of a federal statute will support a section 1983 action. See, e.g., Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Association, 453 U.S. 1, 20-21, 101 S.Ct. 2615, 2626-27, 69 L.Ed.2d 435 (1981); Pennhurst State School v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1, 15, 101 S.Ct. 1531, 1538-39, 67 L.Ed.2d 694 (1981); First National Bank v. Marquette National Bank, 636 F.2d 195, 198 (8th Cir.1980), cert. denied, 450 U.S. 1042, 101 S.Ct. 1761, 68 L.Ed.2d 240 (1981). Our task is not, however, to discern past congressional intent on the basis of current judicial developments. Rather, the focus must be on the law when section 2412 was enacted. In 1980, when this section was passed, section 1983 meant what it says: causes of action could be based on violations of federal law by officials acting under color of state law. In June 1980, the Supreme Court observed that the phrase "and laws" in section 1983 was not encumbered by any modifiers. The Court held that section 1983 was not confined to violations of civil rights or equal protection laws. Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 4-8, 100 S.Ct. 2502, 2504-06, 65 L.Ed.2d 555 (1980). Consequently, when section 2412 was passed, it was conceivable that all federal statutes could support section 1983 actions. See id. at 11, 100 S.Ct. at 2507-08 (Powell, J., dissenting) (interpreting majority opinion to provide an
Premachandra's chief argument, that accepted by the panel opinion, is that congressional intent mandates the interpretation of section 2412(b) in a manner that authorizes payment of attorneys' fees here. The Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412 (1982), originated as S. 265, 96th Cong., 1st Sess., 125 Cong.Rec. 1404 (1979). The bill originally provided that the United States shall be liable for attorneys' fees "in those circumstances where the courts may award such fees in suits involving private parties." It is the amendment of this language, particularly the substitution of the phrase "any other party" for "private parties" that gives rise to Premachandra's argument. He argues that this change was brought about by the testimony of a witness, Armand Derfner, in the legislative hearings. Derfner, of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told a House subcommittee:
Award of Attorneys' Fees Against the Federal Government: Hearings on S. 265 Before the Subcomm. on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice of the House Comm. on the Judiciary, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 100 (1980) [Hereafter Hearings].
Although the subcommittee did not adopt the language advocated by Mr. Derfner, it did change "a private party" to "any other party." This change was reflected in the bill as passed, but no explanation was ever offered for the amendment. Premachandra argues that this sequence reflects Congress's intent to make the federal government liable for attorneys' fees in suits to vindicate violations of the Constitution and federal law.
There is no need to resort to conjecture regarding the legislative history. The language and context of the statute obviate the need to evaluate Derfner's testimony. Nevertheless, we explore this issue to meet the panel's findings and the contention that
Courts are reluctant to give dispositive weight to statements made in the process of enacting laws.
First, there is no statement in any of the legislative history that links the amendment to the Derfner testimony. Premachandra contends that the absence of discussion concerning the amendment demonstrates unanimous congressional agreement with the Derfner testimony. There is convincing authority to the contrary. See R. Dickerson, The Interpretation and Application of Statutes 181-82 (1975) ("There could hardly be less reputable legislative material than legislative silence.") (footnote omitted); see also American Smelting & Refining Co. v. OSHA, 501 F.2d 504, 510 (8th Cir.1974) (congressional failure to respond to comments in a committee hearing does not necessarily reflect agreement). Notwithstanding the amendment, the Conference Committee observed:
H.R.Rep. No. 1434, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 25, reprinted in 1980 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News 5003, 5014 (emphasis added). This explanation does not reflect any intent to place the United States and state governments on parity. The NRDC case cited discusses only the relationship between the United States government and a "private litigant." 484 F.2d at 1335. The House Judiciary Committee report contains a similar discussion. H.R.Rep. No. 1418, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 9, reprinted in 1980 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News 4984, 4987.
Second, there is a disparity between the amendment Derfner offered and the language that Congress adopted. When introduced, the bill contained the phrase "in those circumstances in which the court may award fees in such suits involving private parties." Hearings, supra, at 230-31. Derfner proposed to change "private parties" to "other litigants." Id. at 100. As passed, the bill contained the phrase "to the same extent that any other party would be liable." The change to "other party" may be consistent with Derfner's suggestion. Elimination of the "circumstances" language, however, seems to cut against
Finally, the totality of the legislative history demonstrates a congressional reluctance to assign expansive liability for attorneys' fees to the government. This is seen in the "substantially justified" limitation in subsection (d), as well as in discussions of the scope of subsection (b). See H.R.Rep. No. 1418, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 8, reprinted in 1980 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News 4984, 4986 (section 2412(b) applies only in "limited situations").
This court does not sit as the "self-constituted guardian of the Treasury." Indian Towing Co. v. United States, 350 U.S. 61, 69, 76 S.Ct. 122, 126, 100 L.Ed. 48 (1955). Section 2412(b) is, however, a waiver of sovereign immunity, and it must be strictly construed in the government's favor. See Ruckelshaus v. Sierra Club, 462 U.S. 680, 103 S.Ct. 3274, 3277, 77 L.Ed.2d 938 (1983); Block v. North Dakota ex rel. Board of University & School Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 103 S.Ct. 1811, 1820, 75 L.Ed.2d 840 (1983); McMahon v. United States, 342 U.S. 25, 27, 72 S.Ct. 17, 19, 96 L.Ed. 26 (1951).
Premachandra urges alternate grounds in support of his motion for attorneys'
The order granting attorneys' fees is reversed and the case is remanded for determination of whether the VA is liable for attorneys' fees under the common law.
FLOYD R. GIBSON, Senior Circuit Judge, with whom HEANEY, Circuit Judge, joins dissenting.
Relying on the reasoning set forth in the panel opinion, I dissent. See Premachandra v. Mitts, 727 F.2d 717, 723-30 (8th Cir.1984). I write simply to highlight what I perceive to be the weaknesses in the majority opinion. The majority reaches its conclusion first by treating the language of the statute as clear. The language of the statute is far from clear. The cases cited by the majority, see supra at 636-37, which represent the varying conclusions reached by other courts, are evidence of the difficulty that the language of the statute presents. When a statute is ambiguous it clearly is appropriate for a court to look to the legislative history in order to discern the Congressional intent behind the statute. See Lambur v. Yates, 148 F.2d 137, 139 (8th Cir.1945). Indeed, a court may be obligated to do so. See Ashley Drew & N. Ry. v. United Transp. Union, 625 F.2d 1357, 1365 (8th Cir.1980). Not only is the majority opinion inconsistent with the Congressional intent behind the Equal Access to Justice Act, but the majority
Second, the majority argues that Premachandra's interpretation of § 2412(b) could "render nugatory the `substantially justified' and `special circumstances' limits in section 2412(d),"
Instead of adopting an interpretation of § 2412(b) which would leave it and § 2412(d) intact, the majority adopts an interpretation of § 2412(b) that, in effect, reads out of the statute the language at issue here. The statute provides as follows:
28 U.S.C. § 2312(b). Under the majority's interpretation the United States is not liable to the "same extent that any other party would be liable under ... any statute which specifically provides for such an award," because the federal government does not share the same liability that local governments bear under § 1983 and § 1988 for the unconstitutional acts of their officials. Under the majority's interpretation of § 2412(b), the only time the federal government would be liable for the unconstitutional acts of its officers is when those officers act in concert with a state official and thus meet the state action requirement of § 1983. This circumstance is one so rare as to be virtually non-existent. It is true, as the majority opinion notes, that a waiver of sovereign immunity should be construed strictly. A court should not, however, construe a remedial statute so strictly that, as a practical matter, recovery under the statute becomes unduly restrictive.
Finally, the majority goes to some length to explain why the Derfner testimony and the amendment of the statute subsequent to that testimony were irrelevant. Derfner's remarks centered around the liability of other governmental bodies in civil rights cases, and he suggested a change in the wording of the statute in order to put the federal government "completely on a par as far as the enforcement of important constitutional and statutory rights." Award of Attorneys' Fees Against the Federal Government: Hearings on S. 265 Before the Subcomm. on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice of the House Comm. on the Judiciary, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 100 (1980). The fact is that the statute was amended following Derfner's testimony, and it was amended in substantial accordance with his suggestion. Thus, it is a mischaracterization to say that there was Congressional silence regarding Derfner's testimony. While true literally, the amendment itself must be seen as a significant response to Derfner's suggestion. If that suggestion was in fact consistent with the intent behind the statute, then one would not suspect the amendment to be surrounded by a great deal of discussion. Indeed, one would expect discussion to have ensued if
Further, the entire thrust of the legislative history lends significance to Derfner's testimony because his suggestions were consistent with the result Congress was trying to reach. At this point it cannot be disputed that the EAJA was intended to put the federal government and civil litigants on equal footing. See Premachandra, 727 F.2d at 727-28, 729. It is also clear that Congress intended this parity to exist with regard to civil rights actions. See id. at 729. That is, Congress sought to guarantee that citizens would not be deterred from vindicating their rights simply because of the enormous costs involved in civil rights litigation. Yet the majority opinion disregards this intent
It is clear that the majority has made a policy decision regardless of Congressional intent, which is precisely what the federal government has been asking this court to do all along. From the perspective of public policy, the decision may or may not be a good one. That is beside the point, however, because courts of law are not supposed to be in the business of enacting public policy. This is true particularly where the Congress has, as a matter of public policy, decided to enact a law which would deter unconstitutional acts by federal officials and would serve as a basis of recovery for the victims of unconstitutional acts by federal officials acting in their official capacities.
I therefore, would affirm the district court and do respectfully dissent from the majority view in this opinion.
The dissent concedes that federal officials conspiring with state officials can be liable under section 1983 but laments that such liability is virtually nonexistent. The federal government was recently held liable for fees under section 2412(b) precisely on this rationale. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, 735 F.2d 895, 899-900 (5th Cir.1984). Conspiracies that make federal officials liable under section 1983 are not commonplace but nor are they unheard of. See, e.g., Hampton v. Hanrahan, 600 F.2d 600, 623 (7th Cir.1979), rev'd in part on other grounds, 446 U.S. 754, 100 S.Ct. 1987, 64 L.Ed.2d 670 (1980); Kletschka v. Driver, 411 F.2d 436, 448-49 (2d Cir.1969).
H.R.Rep. No. 992, 98th Cong., 2d Sess. 4 n. 3 (1984). Premachandra argues that this paragraph is a congressional ratification of the panel opinion. This conclusion is not obvious, given the general form of the citation.
Even assuming that the present Congress approves of the panel's result, our decision is unchanged. The issue here is the intent of the 96th Congress regarding section 2412(b), see International Bhd. of Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324, 354 n. 39, 97 S.Ct. 1843, 1864 n. 39, 52 L.Ed.2d 396 (1977), and the current report sheds no light on that intent. See Dickerson, Statutory Interpretation: Dipping Into Legislative History, 11 Hofstra L.Rev. 1125, 1146 (1983) ("[U]nder no theory of communication could post-enactment statements be considered part of context, because there is no way that either legislature or audience could have taken them into account during the process of enactment."); see also Consumer Prod. Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, 447 U.S. 102, 117-18, 100 S.Ct. 2051, 2060-61, 64 L.Ed.2d 766 (1980) (reliance on post-enactment statements is "hazardous").
Finally, President Reagan's refusal to sign H.R. 5479, the bill that the report accompanied, deprives this statement of authoritative content. Presidential Memorandum of Disapproval (Nov. 9, 1984). We need not give weight to the reports of congressional committees on bills that do not become law.
Premachandra's failure to comply with this subsection bars an award under section 2412(d). His motion for attorneys' fees was filed on February 26, 1982, almost four months after this court entered a judgment on appeal. See Monark Boat, 708 F.2d at 1327-29. Moreover, the motion failed to specifically allege that the United States's position was not substantially justified.
H.R.Rep. No. 1418, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. 6, reprinted in 1980 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News 4984 (emphasis added).