Justice THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Section 204(d) of the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), codified in 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), provides in pertinent part that "a court shall award to a prevailing party... fees and other expenses ... in any civil action ... brought by or against the United States ... unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified." We consider whether an award of "fees and other expenses" to a "prevailing party" under § 2412(d) is payable to the litigant or to his attorney. We hold that a § 2412(d) fees award is payable to the litigant and is therefore subject to a Government offset to satisfy a pre-existing debt that the litigant owes the United States.
This case arises out of proceedings in which a Social Security claimant, Ruby Willows Kills Ree, prevailed on a claim for benefits against the United States. Respondent Catherine Ratliff was Ree's attorney in those proceedings. The District Court granted Ree's unopposed motion for a § 2412(d) fees award in the amount of $2,112.60. Before the United States paid the fees award, however, it discovered that Ree owed the Government a debt that predated the District Court's approval of the award. Accordingly, the United States sought an administrative offset against the fees award to satisfy part of that debt.
The Government's authority to use administrative offsets is statutory. See 31 U.S.C. §§ 3711(a), 3716(a) (authorizing an agency whose debt collection attempts are unsuccessful to "collect the claim by administrative offset").
In this case, the Government, relying on the TOP, notified Ree that the Government would apply her § 2412(d) fees award to offset a portion of her outstanding federal debt. Ratliff intervened to challenge the offset on the grounds that § 2412(d) fees belong to a litigant's attorney and thus may not be used to offset or otherwise satisfy a litigant's federal debts. The District Court held that because § 2412(d) directs that fees be awarded to the prevailing party, not to her attorney, Ratliff lacked standing to challenge the Government's proposed offset. See No. CIV. 06-5070-RHB, 2007 WL 6894710, *1 (D.S.D., May 10, 2007).
The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. 540 F.3d 800 (2008). It held that under Circuit precedent, "EAJA attorneys' fees are awarded to prevailing parties' attorneys." Id., at 802. The Court of Appeals recognized that its decision did not accord with a "literal interpretation of the EAJA," ibid., and exacerbated a split among the Courts of Appeals, compare id., at 801-802, with, e.g., Reeves v. Astrue, 526 F.3d 732, 733 (C.A.11 2008); Manning v. Astrue, 510 F.3d 1246, 1249-1251 (C.A.10 2007); FDL Technologies, Inc. v. United States, 967 F.2d 1578, 1580 (C.A.Fed.1992); Panola Land Buying Assn. v. Clark, 844 F.2d 1506, 1510-1511 (C.A.11 1988).
Subsection (d)(1)(A) directs that courts "shall award to a prevailing party... fees and other expenses ... incurred by that party." (Emphasis added.) We have long held that the term "prevailing party" in fee statutes is a "term of art" that refers to the prevailing litigant. See, e.g., Buckhannon Board & Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Dept. of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 603, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855 (2001). This treatment reflects the fact that statutes that award attorney's fees to a prevailing party are exceptions to the "`American Rule'" that each litigant "bear [his] own attorney's fees." Id., at 602, 121 S.Ct. 1835 (citing Key Tronic Corp. v. United States, 511 U.S. 809, 819, 114 S.Ct. 1960, 128 L.Ed.2d 797 (1994)). Nothing in EAJA supports a different reading. Cf. Arthur Andersen LLP v. Carlisle, 556 U.S. ___, ___, n. 4, 129 S.Ct. 1896, 1902, n. 4, 173 L.Ed.2d 832 (2009) (where Congress employs "identical words and phrases within the same statute," they are presumed to carry "the same meaning" (internal quotation marks omitted)). Indeed, other subsections within § 2412(d) underscore that the term "prevailing party" in subsection (d)(1)(A) carries its usual and settled meaning—prevailing litigant. Those other subsections clearly distinguish the party who receives the fees award (the
Ratliff nonetheless asserts that subsection (d)(1)(A)'s use of the verb "award" renders § 2412(d) fees payable directly to a prevailing party's attorney and thus protects the fees from a Government offset against the prevailing party's federal debts. See Brief for Respondent 11-19 (arguing that subsection (d)(1)(A)'s use of the word "`award'" "expressly incorporates a critical distinction" between the right to an "`award'" of fees and the right to "`receiv[e]'" the fees). We disagree.
The transitive verb "`award'" has a settled meaning in the litigation context: It means "[t]o give or assign by sentence or judicial determination." Black's Law Dictionary 125 (5th ed.1979) (emphasis added); see also Webster's Third New International Dictionary 152 (1993) ("to give by judicial decree" (emphasis added)). The plain meaning of the word "award" in subsection (d)(1)(A) is thus that the court shall "give or assign by ... judicial determination" to the "prevailing party" (here, Ratliff's client Ree) attorney's fees in the amount sought and substantiated under, inter alia, subsection (d)(1)(B).
Ratliff's contrary argument does not withstand scrutiny. According to Ratliff, subsection (d)(1)(B), which uses "the noun `award'" to mean a "`decision,'" requires us to construe subsection (d)(1)(A) (which uses "award" as a verb) to mean that "[o]nly the prevailing party may receive the award (the decision granting fees), but only the attorney who earned the fee (the payment asked or given for professional services) is entitled to receive it." Brief for Respondent 16, 15 (emphasis in original; some internal quotation marks and footnote omitted). This argument ignores the settled definitions above, and even the definitions Ratliff proffers, because each makes clear that the verb "award" in subsection (d)(1)(A) means to "give by the decision of a law court" or to "grant ... by judicial decree," not simply to "give a decision" itself. Id., at 16, and n. 39 (emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted). We thus agree with the Government that under the statutory language here, the "judicial decision is the means by which the court confers a right to payment upon the prevailing party; it is not itself the thing that the court gives (or orders the defendant to give) to the party." Reply Brief for Petitioner 4 (emphasis in original) (citing Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 761, 107 S.Ct. 2672, 96 L.Ed.2d 654 (1987) (explaining that "[i]n all civil litigation, the judicial decree is not the end but the means")). This settled and natural construction of the operative statutory language is reflected in our cases. See, e.g., Scarborough v. Principi, 541 U.S. 401, 405, 124 S.Ct. 1856, 158 L.Ed.2d 674 (2004) ("EAJA authorizes the payment of fees to a prevailing party" (emphasis added)).
Ratliff's final textual argument—that subsection (d)(1)(A)'s reference to "attorney's fees" itself establishes that the fees are payable to the prevailing party's attorney, see Brief for Respondent 19-22— proves far too much. The fact that the statute awards to the prevailing party fees in which her attorney may have a beneficial interest or a contractual right does not establish that the statute "awards" the fees directly to the attorney. For the
In an effort to avoid the Act's plain meaning, Ratliff argues that other provisions of EAJA, combined with the SSA and the Government's practice of paying some EAJA fees awards directly to attorneys in Social Security cases, render § 2412(d) at least ambiguous on the question presented here, and that these other provisions resolve the ambiguity in her favor. Again we disagree. Even accepting § 2412(d) as ambiguous on the question presented, the provisions and practices Ratliff identifies do not alter our conclusion that EAJA fees are payable to litigants and are thus subject to offset where a litigant has outstanding federal debts.
To begin with, § 2412(d)(1)'s provisions differentiate between attorneys and prevailing parties, and treat attorneys on par with other service providers, in a manner that forecloses the conclusion that attorneys have a right to direct payment of subsection (d)(1)(A) awards. As noted above, subsection (d)(1)(B) requires the prevailing party to submit a fee application showing that she is otherwise "eligible to receive an award" and, as a complement to that requirement, compels the prevailing party to submit "an itemized statement from any attorney ... representing or appearing in behalf of the party" that details the attorney's hourly rate and time the attorney spent on the case. (Emphasis added.) This language would make little sense if, as Ratliff contends, § 2412(d)'s "prevailing party" language effectively refers to the prevailing litigant's attorney. Subsection (d)(1)(B) similarly makes clear that the "prevailing party" (not her attorney) is the recipient of the fees award by requiring the prevailing party to demonstrate that her net worth falls within the range the statute requires for fees awards. And EAJA's cost provision further underscores the point. That provision uses language identical to that in the attorney's fees provision to allow prevailing parties to recover "the reasonable expenses of expert witnesses" and "any study, analysis, engineering report, test, or project" necessary to prepare "the party's case," § 2412(d)(2)(A), yet Ratliff does not argue that it makes costs payable directly to the vendors who provide the relevant services.
Nor do the SSA provisions on which Ratliff relies establish that subsection (d)(1)(A) fees awards are payable to prevailing parties' attorneys. It is true that the SSA makes fees awards under that statute payable directly to a prevailing claimant's attorney. See 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)(A) (providing that where a claimant "who was represented before the court by an attorney" obtains a favorable judgment, "the court may determine and allow as part of its judgment a reasonable fee for such representation, not in excess of 25 percent of" the benefits award and may certify the full amount of the statutory fees award "for payment to such attorney out of, and not in addition to, the amount of" the claimant's benefits award (emphasis added)). But the SSA's express authorization of such payments undermines Ratliff's case insofar as it shows that Congress knows how to make fees awards payable directly to attorneys where it desires to do so. Given the stark contrast between the SSA's express authorization of direct payments to attorneys and the absence of such language in subsection (d)(1)(A), we are reluctant to interpret the latter provision to contain a direct fee requirement
Ratliff contends that Congress' 1985 amendments to § 206(b) of EAJA supply just such evidence, at least in Social Security cases. See § 3(2), 99 Stat. 186, note following 28 U.S.C. § 2412. The 1985 amendments address the fact that Social Security claimants may be eligible to receive fees awards under both the SSA and EAJA, and clarify the procedure that attorneys and their clients must follow to prevent the windfall of an unauthorized double recovery of fees for the same work. Section 206(b) provides that no violation of law occurs "if, where the claimant's attorney receives fees for the same work under both [42 U.S.C. § 406(b) and 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d) ], the claimant's attorney refunds to the claimant the amount of the smaller fee." According to Ratliff, the fact that § 206(b) recognizes, or at least assumes, that an attorney will sometimes "receiv[e]" fees under 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d) suggests that we should construe subsection (d)(1)(A) to incorporate the same direct payments to attorneys that the SSA expressly authorizes.
This argument gives more weight to § 206(b)'s reference to attorney "recei[pt]" of fees than the reference can bear. Section 206(b)'s ensuing reference to the attorney's obligation to "refun[d]" the amount of the smaller fee to the claimant, which reference suggests that the award belongs to the claimant in the first place, alone undercuts Ratliff's reading of "receives" as implying an initial statutory payment to the attorney.
The Government's history of paying EAJA awards directly to attorneys in certain cases does not compel a different conclusion. The Government concedes that until 2006, it "frequently paid EAJA fees in Social Security cases directly to attorneys." Reply Brief for Petitioner 13. But this fact does not alter our interpretation of subsection (d)(1)(A)'s "prevailing party" language or the Government's rights and obligations under the statute. As the Government
Our cases interpreting and applying 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which contains language virtually identical to the EAJA provision we address here,
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We reverse the Court of Appeals' judgment and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
Justice SOTOMAYOR, with whom Justice STEVENS and Justice GINSBURG join, concurring.
I join the Court's opinion because I agree that the text of the Equal Access to
In enacting the EAJA, Congress found "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." § 202(a), 94 Stat. 2325, note following 5 U.S.C. § 504, p. 684 (Congressional Findings). As we have often recognized, "the specific purpose of the EAJA is to eliminate for the average person the financial disincentive to challenge unreasonable governmental actions." Commissioner v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 163, 110 S.Ct. 2316, 110 L.Ed.2d 134 (1990); see also Scarborough v. Principi, 541 U.S. 401, 406, 124 S.Ct. 1856, 158 L.Ed.2d 674 (2004) (by "expressly authoriz[ing] attorney's fee awards against the Federal Government," Congress sought "`to eliminate the barriers that prohibit small businesses and individuals from securing vindication of their rights in civil actions and administrative proceedings brought by or against the Federal Government'" (quoting H.R.Rep. No. 96-1005, p. 9 (1979))); Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 883, 109 S.Ct. 2248, 104 L.Ed.2d 941 (1989) (the EAJA was designed to address the problem that "`[f]or many citizens, the costs of securing vindication of their rights and the inability to recover attorney fees preclude resort to the adjudicatory process'" (quoting S.Rep. No. 96-253, p. 5 (1979))). EAJA fee awards, which average only $3,000 to $4,000 per case, have proved to be a remarkably efficient way of improving access to the courts for the statute's intended beneficiaries, including thousands of recipients of Social Security and veteran's benefits each year.
The EAJA's admirable purpose will be undercut if lawyers fear that they will never actually receive attorney's fees to which a court has determined the prevailing party is entitled. The point of an award of attorney's fees, after all, is to enable a prevailing litigant to pay her attorney. See, e.g., Missouri v. Jenkins, 491 U.S. 274, 285, 109 S.Ct. 2463, 105 L.Ed.2d
In its arguments before this Court, the Government resists this self-evident conclusion, but each of the three reasons it proffers is unpersuasive. First, the Government suggests that because EAJA fee awards are limited to those circumstances in which the Government's position is not "substantially justified," 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), no lawyer can rely on an EAJA fee award when deciding to take a case, so the possibility of an offset eliminating the award will play no additional role in the lawyer's decision.
Second, the Government contends that any disincentive the fear of administrative offset may create is mitigated in the Social Security context by the Social Security Act's independent provision authorizing a fee award payable directly to the attorney. See id., at 17-18 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)(A)). But as the Government acknowledges, the "EAJA's fee-shifting provisions are potentially more generous than [the Social Security Act's] in at least three respects": (1) A court may not award attorney's fees under the Social Security Act, but may under the EAJA, when the claimant wins only a procedural victory and does not obtain any past-due benefits; (2) fees under the Social Security Act are limited to a percentage of benefits awarded, while EAJA fees are calculated under the lodestar method by examining the attorney's reasonable hours expended and her reasonable hourly rate; and (3) in contrast to the Social Security Act, fees may be awarded under the EAJA in addition to, rather than out of, the benefits awarded. Brief for Petitioner 6-7. EAJA awards thus provide an important additional incentive for attorneys to undertake Social Security cases.
Finally, the Government argues that lawyers can easily determine at the outset whether a potential client owes the Government a debt and can then assist the client in establishing a written repayment plan that would prevent an offset. Reply Brief for Petitioner 18. At oral argument,
In the end, the Government has no compelling response to the fact that today's decision will make it more difficult for the neediest litigants to find attorneys to represent them in cases against the Government. I "find it difficult to ascribe to Congress an intent to throw" an EAJA litigant "a lifeline that it knew was a foot short .... Given the anomalous nature of this result, and its frustration of the very purposes behind the EAJA itself, Congress cannot lightly be assumed to have intended it." Sullivan, 490 U.S., at 890, 109 S.Ct. 2248.
The Government suggests that it is possible to glean such intent from the fact that Congress did not expressly exempt EAJA awards from administrative offset under the DCIA. Reply Brief for Petitioner 19-20; 31 U.S.C. § 3716(c)(1)(C) (specifying certain federal payments that are not subject to administrative offset); see also 31 CFR § 285.5(e)(2) (2009) (identifying payments that are not subject to administrative offset because of a statutory exemption). If "application of the offset program to such awards will make it more difficult for Social Security claimants or other litigants to find attorneys," the Government contends, the "provisions that govern the offset program indicate that Congress is willing to bear that cost." Reply Brief for Petitioner 20. The history of these provisions indicates otherwise. For more than two decades after the EAJA was enacted in 1980, the Commissioner of Social Security "consistently paid" EAJA fee awards directly to the attorney, not the prevailing party. Stephens ex rel. R.E. v. Astrue, 565 F.3d 131, 135 (C.A.4 2009); see also Bryant v. Commissioner of Social Security, 578 F.3d 443, 446 (C.A.6 2009); cf. ante, at 2525, n. 3, 2528-2529. "In fact, the Commissioner created a direct deposit system for attorneys and issued [Internal Revenue Service] 1099 forms directly to the attorneys who received awards, noting the awards as taxable attorney income." Stephens, 565 F.3d, at 135. Not until 2005, when the Treasury Department extended the offset program to cover "miscellaneous" federal payments, including "fees," did the Commissioner cease paying EAJA fee awards directly to attorneys and adopt the position that the awards were appropriately considered the property of the prevailing party. Id., at 136 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Bryant, 578 F.3d, at 446; ante, at 2524, 2528-2529. Congress therefore had no reason to include a specific exemption of EAJA fee awards (in the Social Security context or otherwise) from the offset program when it enacted the DCIA in 1996.
I am further reluctant to conclude that Congress would want EAJA fee awards to be offset for a prevailing litigant's unrelated debts because it is not likely to effectuate the DCIA's purpose of "maximiz[ing] collections of delinquent debts owed to the Government by ensuring quick action to enforce recovery of debts and the use of all appropriate collection tools." § 31001(b)(1), 110 Stat. 1321-358. This purpose would
While I join the Court's opinion and agree with its textual analysis, the foregoing persuades me that the practical effect of our decision "severely undermines the [EAJA's] estimable aim .... The Legislature has just cause to clarify beyond debate" whether this effect is one it actually intends. Bartlett v. Strickland, 556 U.S. 1, ___, 129 S.Ct. 1231, 1250, 173 L.Ed.2d 173 (2009) (GINSBURG, J., dissenting).