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Animal Legal Defense Fund, Inc. v. Perdue

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 16, 2018

ANIMAL LEGAL DEFENSE FUND, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
SONNY PERDUE, Secretary of Agriculture, and UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge.

         For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees and costs is granted in the amount of $12, 169.14.

         I. Background

         In July 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (“USDA”) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”) filed an enforcement action against the owner of the Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester, Iowa. The plaintiff in this case, Animal Legal Defense Fund (“ALDF”), moved to intervene in that administrative proceeding but its motion was denied by the presiding administrative law judge. ALDF then appealed that decision to the agency's Judicial Officer. The Judicial Officer denied the appeal on three grounds: first, that ALDF's “stated interests . . . [were] beyond the scope of [the] proceeding” and thus its intervention “would disrupt the orderly conduct of public business” under section 555(b) of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”); second, that ALDF was not an “interested party” as required for intervention under APA section 554(c); and third, that the USDA's Rules of Practice do not provide for intervention. February 15, 2017 Memorandum Opinion (“Mem. Op.”) at 4.

         In May 2016, ALDF filed this lawsuit, arguing that the Judicial Officer's decision was arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law under APA section 706(2). The complaint consisted of two counts. In the first count, ALDF alleged that the Judicial Officer's interpretation of the agency's Rules of Practice amounted to a “blanket prohibition” on third-party participation in administrative proceedings in violation of sections 554(c) and 555(b) of the APA. Compl. ¶¶ 90-95. In the second count, ALDF alleged that it was an “interested person” under APA section 555(b), and that the Judicial Officer erred in finding otherwise on the ground that its participation would disrupt the orderly conduct of public business. Compl. ¶ 97. ALDF also argued in count two that the Judicial Officer incorrectly applied the APA's definition of “party” in concluding that ALDF could not intervene as an “interested party” under APA section 554(c). Compl. ¶ 98.

         The Court granted ALDF's motion for summary judgment in a February 15, 2017 Memorandum Opinion. The Court rejected the Judicial Officer's finding that ALDF's interests were beyond the scope of the proceeding. And because the Judicial Officer did not otherwise address how ALDF's participation might impede the proceeding, the Court remanded the case “for a more thorough consideration of ALDF's motion in light of the factors relevant to third-party participation in agency proceedings under [APA] Section 555(b).” Mem. Op. at 2. ALDF had abandoned its “interested party” claim under APA section 554(c), and the Court rejected ALDF's argument that the Judicial Officer's finding constituted an unlawful blanket prohibition on third-party participation in USDA proceedings. Mem. Op. at 12-13.

         Plaintiff now seeks $20, 359.60 in attorneys' fees and $605 in costs as a prevailing party in this action, plus an additional $3, 988.68 in attorneys' fees for time spent litigating its fee petition.

         II. Legal Standard

         The Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”) directs courts to award attorneys' fees and expenses to parties who prevail in civil actions against the United States if the government's position was not “substantially justified.” 28 U.S.C. §§ 2412(a)(1), (d)(1)(A). If the government's position was not “substantially justified, ” see Role Models Am., Inc. v. Brownlee, 353 F.3d 962 (D.C. Cir. 2004), the prevailing party is entitled to a reasonable fee award. The “most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee, ” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983), is the “lodestar figure, which is the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate, ” Murray v. Weinberger, 741 F.2d 1423, 1427 (D.C. Cir. 1984). However, if a plaintiff prevails on only some of its claims, a court can adjust the fee award to reflect the relative degree of the plaintiff's success. See George Hyman Constr. Co. v. Brooks, 963 F.2d 1532, 1535 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

         III. Analysis

         A. Prevailing Party

         The government acknowledges that ALDF is a prevailing party within the definition of 28 U.S.C. § 2412(a)(1). Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees (“Def. Opp.”) at 5. The Court therefore need not address this requirement.

         B. Substantial Justification

         The government argues that ALDF is not eligible for a fee award because the government's position was “substantially justified.” Def. Opp. at 5-10. In order to meet this standard, the government must demonstrate the reasonableness of both its litigation position and the agency position being challenged. Role Models Am., Inc. v. Brownlee, 353 F.3d 962 (D.C. Cir. 2004). A position is ‚Äúsubstantially ...


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