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Astrue v. Ratliff

From lawbrain.com

Astrue v. Ratliff is a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in June 2010 that clarified an issue regarding attorneys' fees for prevailing litigants.

In the case, the respondent was attorney Catherine Ratliff, who successfully represented her client Ruby Ree in a claim against the United States for social security benefits. The District Court granted Ree's motion for attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act; however, the Court indicated the fees belonged to Ree and not her attorney.

The Supreme Court held the attorney fees award are payable to the prevailing litigant and subject to offset by federal debt. slip opinion, No. 08-1332.




Ruby Kills Ree prevailed in a lawsuit against the United States Social Security Administration for social security benefits. The federal district court granted Ree's motion for attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. Upon awarding Ree's attorneys fees, the district court concluded the litigant's award must be offset by outstanding federal debt pursuant to § 2412(d) and Attorney Ratliff has no standing to claim the award directly.[1]

Legal Analysis and Conclusion

The Supreme Court held that attorney's fees award payable to the litigant is subject to an offset by the litigant's preexisting federal debt pursuant to § 2412(d)(1)(A).[2]

The federal district court awarded attorneys fees of $2,122.60 to the litigant based on § 2412(d)(1)(A) of the Equal Access to Justice Act. The Act provides that "a court shall award to a prevailing party ... fees and other expenses ... in any civil action ... brought by or against the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A).[3]

Attorney Catherine Ratliff intervened in the federal district court and claimed the fees are her property and the litigant's award should not be reduced.[4]

According to the plain language of § 2412(d)(1)(A), the "prevailing party" shall be awarded attorneys fees and this term refers to the prevailing litigant. Subsections (d)(1)(B) and other provisions differentiate the recipient of the award (the litigant) from the acting attorney that generated the fees. By definition, an award is provided by judicial decree to the "prevailing party," which in this case is Ree. The attorney merely serves as a representative of the party and cannot assume the party's rights in court.[5]

Therefore, Attorney Ratliff lacks standing in this case.[6]

Effects of the Law


  1. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1322.pdf
  2. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1322.pdf
  3. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1322.pdf
  4. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1322.pdf
  5. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1322.pdf
  6. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1322.pdf

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