EQUAL ACCESS TO JUSTICE ACT IS NEITHER EQUAL NOR JUST: ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS GET PAID OFF AND FILE MORE LAWSUITS; MEANWHILE PRIVATE CITIZENS BATTLE FOR YEARS FOR THEIR FEES
In July 2012, Karen Budd-Falen, a Cheyenne, Wyoming attorney, presented her findings on the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) to the 100th Anniversary Conference of the Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute in Vail, Colorado. After spending years researching court documents—the federal government keeps no unified records of EAJA disbursements—Ms. Budd-Falen found that environmental groups have amassed “hundreds of millions of dollars” in EAJA awards, which they use to file more and more lawsuits.
Among Ms. Budd-Falen’s findings were that, over a decade, eight environmental groups filed more than 3,300 cases in federal district courts across the country. In the last two years of the Bush Administration, seven groups filed 253 lawsuits; in the first two years of the Obama Administration, those groups filed 525 lawsuits. Examining just one federal district court and the lawsuits filed by just one group, she discovered that the U.S. Department of Justice gave the group EAJA awards totaling $1.151 million! It is not only the sum; also outrageous is the hourly rate granted to environmental group attorneys. Instead of the statutory hourly ($125), these lawyers averaged $491; the highest rate awarded was $775! (By comparison, the lawyers who represent seniors and veterans average EAJA awards of only $172 an hour.)
The EAJA was written for much nobler purposes, which was to allow Americans—like veterans and seniors—who are forced to litigate against the federal government to be paid their attorneys’ fees and expenses when they prevail and if the government’s legal position is not “substantially justified.” There is an eligibility restriction based on net worth ($2 million for individuals and $7 million for entities), but that limitation does not apply to tax-exempt (environmental) groups. The use of the EAJA by environmental groups is unique in two additional ways, one not intended by Congress, the other not anticipated. Environmental groups recover fees for suing over non-injurious, technical violations of federal law, whereas most other EAJA applicants sue to vindicate constitutional or statutory rights. Finally, although environmental groups are paid quickly—federal lawyers rarely if ever challenge the groups’ EAJA demands, and the groups often file open-and-shut lawsuits, such as missed deadlines—private litigants are paid only after years, if ever.
Budd-Falen’s findings come as no surprise to Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF). For decades MSLF has watched as radical environmental groups are paid quickly for their litigation. For example, in a big oil and gas case in Pennsylvania, three environmental groups filed a lawsuit, which the Obama Administration quickly settled by agreeing to do what the groups demanded. As part of the “sweetheart settlement,” the groups were paid nearly $20,000 simply for filing their 12-page complaint, which works out to $1,600 a page! On the other hand, federal lawyers consistently oppose the demands for payment under the EAJA filed by private citizens.
Take MSLF’s client John Shuler of Dupuyer, Montana, who killed a grizzly bear in self-defense—as allowed under the Endangered Species Act—but was prosecuted by the federal government for nearly a decade. Shuler prevailed only after MSLF expended $225,000, but federal courts denied his EAJA application, holding that the federal government’s position in his case was “substantially justified.” The courts did so despite the risible factual and legal arguments of federal lawyers: 1) Shuler did not act in self-defense despite that the bear charged and fell mortally wounded 20 feet from him; 2) Shuler, by leaving his house, unlawfully placed himself in the “zone of imminent danger,” 3) Shuler’s dog “Boone,” by going on point, provoked the bear and, thus, “escalated” the conflict; and 4) bears are entitled to a higher standard of self-defense because they are not capable of sapient thought.
Or take MSLF’s client Donald Eno, a disabled veteran on fixed income, eking out a living as a miner on his gold and travertine claim in the Plumas National Forest in northern California. In 1996, the U.S. Forest Service took legal action to drive Mr. Eno off his valuable claim. The government argued, for example, that his mining would interfere with cultural myths allegedly important to some Maidu Indians; in fact, one Forest Service attorney met, unsuccessfully, with the Maidu urging them to so assert. In December 2003, after years of pre-hearing preparation, testimony, and post-hearing briefs, an administrative law judge ruled in favor of Mr. Eno. The federal government appealed, but in February 2007, Mr. Eno won once again. Although federal lawyers did not appeal, they challenged Mr. Eno’s EAJA claim for nearly $200,000, a battle that, after more than five years, remains in federal court!
Or take MSLF’s client Stanley K. Mann, a professor, lawyer, and alternative-energy entrepreneur, whose extremely valuable geothermal wells were seized illegally by federal officials. Beginning in April 1998, Mr. Mann fought to recover payment for what had been taken from him; in April 2009, Mr. Mann was awarded nearly $1 million. Despite his clear victory, the years invested in it, and the absence of any justification for the government’s illegal actions, federal lawyers contested his nearly $300,000 EAJA claim. Nearly three years later, Mr. Mann awaits a ruling.
MSLF battles these injustices on two fronts. First, MSLF relentlessly fights in federal court to obtain the full EAJA awards to which its clients are entitled. Second, MSLF aggressively challenges the constitutional right of environmental groups (“standing”) to file their endless lawsuits. MSLF won on this issue before the Supreme Court of the United States and now fights to apply it nationwide. Thank you for your support of these crucial battles!