Melkonyan v. Sullivan
501 U.S. 89 (1991)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991)

Melkonyan v. Sullivan

No. 90-5538

Argued April 15, 1991

Decided June 10, 1991

501 U.S. 89

Syllabus

Petitioner filed suit in the District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)'s review provisions, seeking review of a final decision of respondent Secretary of Health and Human Services denying his application for disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program. While his case was pending, he filed a new application, accompanied by additional evidence of disability, and was awarded benefits. Subsequently, the Secretary requested that the court remand the first claim for reconsideration. Responding to petitioner's motion that it either issue a decision on his motion for summary judgment or remand the case, the court granted the Secretary's remand motion, "concurred in by plaintiff," and remanded the case "to the Secretary for all further proceedings." On remand, the first decision was vacated and petitioner was found disabled as of his original application date. Over a year later, he applied to the District Court for attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), which, inter alia, permits an award of fees and expenses to a party prevailing against the United States "in any civil action . . . in any court," 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), upon an application made within 30 days of "final judgment in the action," § 2412(d)(1)(B). The court denied the request on the ground that the Secretary's position in the litigation had been substantially justified. However, the Court of Appeals vacated, concluding that petitioner's application was untimely because the administrative determination on remand was a "final judgment," which triggered the 30-day period.

Held:

1. The EAJA's plain language makes clear that a "final judgment" for purposes of § 2412(d)(1)(B) is a judgment rendered by a court that terminates the civil action for which EAJA fees may be received. Subsections (d)(1)(A) and (d)(1)(B) work in tandem, and subsection (d)(1)(B)'s requirement that the fee application be filed within 30 days of "final judgment in the action" (emphasis added) plainly refers back to the "civil action . . . in any court" in subsection (d)(1)(A). This reading is reinforced by the contrast between § 2412 and 5 U.S.C. § 504(a), the only EAJA provision allowing awards for administrative proceedings conducted

Page 501 U. S. 90

prior to the filing of a civil action. While § 504(a)(2)'s pertinent language largely mirrors that of § 2412(d)(1)(B), it requires that a fee application be filed within 30 days "of a final disposition in the adversary adjudication," which includes an administrative agency's adjudication, rather than "final judgment in the action," which a court renders. The Secretary errs in arguing that the EAJA's definition of "final judgment" -- "final and not appealable" -- differs so significantly from the traditional definition -- final and appealable -- that it must include administrative agencies' decisions, since this suggestion does not alter § 2412(d)(1)(B)'s unambiguous requirement of judgment by a court, and since Congress adopted this unusual definition to clarify that a judgment was final only after the time for taking an appeal from a district court's judgment had expired. Sullivan v. Hudson,490 U. S. 877, is not to the contrary, for it stands only for the proposition that a claimant may collect EAJA fees for work done in post-remand administrative proceedings where a civil action has been filed, the district court retains jurisdiction over the action, and contemplates entering a judgment at the proceedings' completion. Pp. 501 U. S. 93-97.

2. A district court may remand a final decision of the Secretary only as provided in sentences four and six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g): in conjunction with a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the Secretary's decision (sentence four), or in light of additional evidence without any substantive ruling as to the correctness of the Secretary's decision, but only if the claimant shows good cause for failing to present the evidence earlier (sentence six). The conclusion that Congress intended to so limit courts' authority to enter remand orders is dictated by § 405(g)'s language, which explicitly delineates only two circumstances under which such remands are authorized, cf. 2United States v. Smith,499 U. S. 160, and is supported by § 405(g)'s legislative history. This view also harmonizes with the EAJA's final judgment requirement, with the 30-day period beginning in sentence four cases after the court enters its judgment and the appeal period runs, and beginning in sentence six cases after the Secretary returns to court following a post-remand proceeding's completion, the court enters a judgment, and the appeal period runs. Pp. 501 U. S. 97-102.

3. This matter must be remanded for the District Court to clarify its order because the record does not clearly indicate what it intended by its disposition. It is not certain that this was a sentence six remand. The court did not make a "good cause" finding or seem to anticipate that the parties would return to court, and it may be that the court treated the joint remand request as a voluntary dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a). If it was a sentence six remand, once the Secretary returns to the District Court and the court enters a final judgment, petitioner will be entitled to EAJA fees unless the Secretary's position was substantially justified, an issue the Court of Appeals never addressed.

Page 501 U. S. 91

And if it was not such a remand, petitioner may be entitled to no fees at all. Pp. 501 U. S. 102-103.

4. This case is not an appropriate vehicle for resolving the issue whether petitioner's application is timely. In a sentence six remand, he will not be prejudiced if the District Court determines that an application filed before final judgment is sufficient or if he reapplies after the judgment's entry. And timeliness may not be at issue if this was not a sentence six remand. P. 501 U. S. 103.

895 F.2d 556 (CA9 1990), vacated and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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