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Roanoke River Basin Ass'n v. Hudson

Citation: 23 ELR 20837
No. No. 92-1526, 991 F.2d 132/36 ERC 1577/(4th Cir., 04/20/1993) Denial of attorneys fees aff'd

The court upholds the denial of an Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) award of attorneys fees to a party prevailing on at least one significant issue in its unsuccessful attempt to block issuance of a permit to the city of Virginia Beach for the construction of a potable-water pipeline because the government's entire position in the litigation was substantially justified. Various parties interested in protecting the water resources of the Roanoke River basin challenged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' (Corps') issuance of a permit to Virginia Beach for the construction of a potable-water pipeline. After prevailing only on one significant issue, the plaintiff parties sought attorneys fees under the EAJA from the federal government, claiming "prevailing party" status and that the government's position was not "substantially justified," as required by the EAJA.

The court rules that in determining whether the government's position is substantially justified, for the purpose of addressing a prevailing party's EAJA fee-award claim, it must look beyond the issue on which the party prevailed to determine, from the totality of circumstances, whether the government acted reasonably in causing the litigation or in taking a particular stance during the litigation. The court must look to the entire litigation. U.S. Supreme Court case law discourages an issue-by-issue analysis of the government's posture throughout each phase of the litigation, and instead directs a more broadly focused analysis that would reject the view that any unreasonable position taken by the government in the course of litigation automatically opens the door to an EAJA fee award. The court concludes that, while a party may become a "prevailing party" on a single substantive issue from which benefit is derived, satisfying one prong of the EAJA, it does not automatically follow that the government's position in the case as a whole is not substantially justified. The court notes that the two prongs of the EAJA, whether the fee-award petitioner is a prevailing party and whether the government's position is substantially justified, were not intended to be so [23 ELR 20838] closely linked. Determining whether a petitioner is a prevailing party requires examination of the degree of success obtained by the petitioner, whereas whether the government's position in the litigation is substantially justified focuses on the reasonableness of its position in initiating or continuing the litigation. The EAJA was never meant to chill the government's right to litigate or to subject the public fisc to added risk of loss when the government chooses to litigate reasonably substantiated positions.

Applying its ruling to the case, the court holds that the lower court properly considered the Corps' position in its entirety when it determined that it was substantially justified in its position, and the lower court did not abuse its discretion in making this determination.

Counsel for Plaintiff-Appellant
Patrick M. McSweeney
McSweeney, Burtch & Crump
11 S. 12th St., P.O. Box 1463, Richmond VA 23212
(804) 783-6800

Counsel for Defendants-Appellees
J. Carol Williams
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Niemeyer, J. (before Hall and Murnaghan, JJ.)