Equal Access to Justice Act
What is the Equal Access to Justice Act?
The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) was designed to level the playing field between private citizens and the vast resources of the federal government. EAJA allows plaintiffs to recover attorney fees and other costs from the federal government when they prevail in a case against the government. “Prevailing” may not mean “winning” a case—just prevailing on certain points can merit EAJA reimbursement. Often, the government will simply opt to award EAJA payments by settling out of court.
Is the EAJA a Good Concept or Flawed Execution?
- Although EAJA was intended to protect citizens' rights, it has become a means for radical environmental groups to target private citizens by challenging in court their rights to natural resource uses such as livestock grazing.
- Environmental extremists have filed more than 1,500 cases in a six-year period, many of which were frivolous or filed on technicalities. EAJA litigation has become a specialization of these interest groups and their lawyers, making it easy for them to convince the government to settle and pay their fees.
- Often, it is easier for the government to settle cases and pay plaintiffs through EAJA instead of devoting time, staff and resources to a trial. EAJA fees come out of the agencies’ budgets, further hampering their ability to do their job.
- Only businesses with a net worth of $7 million or less are eligible to participate in EAJA. But any nonprofit, regardless of its net worth, is eligible for reimbursement. Some special interest groups abusing EAJA have a net worth of more than $50 million.
- There is no real oversight of EAJA. We know millions of taxpayer dollars have been distributed, but there has been little or no accounting of exactly how much or to whom.
What is the status of the EAJA on Capitol Hill?
U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) introduced S. 1061 and H.R. 1996, the Government Litigation Savings Act, to bring much needed transparency and accountability to EAJA. This commonsense legislation would do the following:
- Prohibit organizations or their subsidiaries from filing for EAJA funds when their net worth exceeds $7 million
- Require that EAJA filers show a “direct and personal monetary interest” in the action to be eligible for payments
- Cap the attorney fees environmental extremists claim to be owed
H.R. 1996 passed out of the House Committee on the Judiciary late in 2011. Its tracking and transparency measures were passed by the House as part of a separate bill (H.R. 4078). NCBA urges all members of Congress to cosponsor the Government Litigation Savings Act.
How does the EAJA affect cattle and livestock producers?
Rancher Tim Lequerica of Oregon would have been put out of business by a suit against the Bureau of Land Management to prevent livestock access to the Owyhee River. So Lequerica and his neighbors, like many other farmers and ranchers have been forced to do, joined the government’s case to protect their businesses, paying $42,000 in attorney fees.
The ranchers and special interest groups came to a compromise that would allow livestock access to another source of water. But because the government failed to process the appropriate paperwork, they voluntarily agreed to pay $128,000 in EAJA funds to the special interest groups.
Family farmers and ranchers, like Lequerica, are forced to pay crippling legal fees to fight these extremist attacks. Meanwhile, their tax dollars are paying the attorney fees for the groups attacking them.
Lequerica explains, “My tax money paid for every part of the litigation. I paid my personal attorneys to represent me; my tax dollars paid the federal government who failed to do all the paperwork correctly; and my tax dollars paid [these special interests] to sue the federal government.”