Equal Access To Justice Act Determined To Be Inapplicable To Non-Parties

By Patrick J. McBurney February 18, 2020Court Decisions

The Equal Access to Justice for Small Businesses and Individuals Act (“EAJA”) is a legislative enactment whose purpose is to “mitigate the burden placed upon individuals and small businesses by the arbitrary and capricious decisions of administrative agencies made during adjudicatory proceedings, as defined in the act.” Taft v. Pare, 536 A.2d 888, 892 (R.I. 1988). EAJA accomplishes this purpose by providing for an award of attorney’s fees and other reasonable litigation expenses to a prevailing party. See G.L. 1956 § 42-92-3. This incentive seeks to eliminate the financial burden for those who are forced to defend against unjustified governmental action and seeks to deter the unreasonable exercise of governmental authority.

In a recent Superior Court decision, a non-party litigant sought to reap the benefits of EAJA. In that matter, Preston v. Town of Hopkinton et al., C.A. WC-2017-0470, the Plaintiff sought litigation expenses for her successful challenge of the decision of the Hopkinton Zoning Board that permitted her neighbor to keep alpacas on the neighbor’s property. The Plaintiff was not a party to the underlying decision of the Zoning Board, but rather, was able to challenge the decision as an “aggrieved party.” After obtaining a favorable ruling from the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the Plaintiff argued that she was a prevailing party pursuant to EAJA and should be awarded her reasonable litigation expenses. The Superior Court disagreed, determining that EAJA is not applicable to non-parties, like the Plaintiff in this matter, because EAJA sought to protect those whom the government may “proceed against.” Plaintiff, the court determined, voluntarily “entered the arena” and thus, created a “scenario with which the Legislature was [not] concerned when it enacted the EAJA.” The ruling clarifies that EAJA is only applicable to parties whom the government brings an action against, and not parties who may intervene to protect their own interests. For further information on this decision or related legal issues, please contact Attorney Patrick J. McBurney at 401-824-5100 or email pmcburney@pldolaw.com.

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Patrick J. McBurney is an Associate with Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara LLC and a member of the Corporate & Business and Litigation Teams. He is an accomplished zoning and land use lawyer and litigator with significant experience helping clients navigate through the complex areas of federal, state and municipal policies and regulations regarding permitting, variance approvals and other zoning-related compliance matters such as special permitting applications, land acquisition and public project development. His successful litigation practice includes representing clients from pre-trial investigation and discovery to preparing motions and pleadings through trial, settlement and the appeal process. Attorney McBurney’s practice also includes administrative and contract law including resolving breach of contract claims and mechanic lien disputes. He has extensive experience in the public and private sectors, including the construction industry, and routinely represents clients before state courts and agencies as well as municipal boards and authorities. Attorney McBurney earned his J.D. from St. John’s University School of Law and was Associate Managing Editor of the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review. He is a recipient of CALI Excellence for the Future Award in Constitutional Law. He served as a Judicial Law Clerk for the Honorable Associate Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and for the Honorable Associate Justice Michael Silverstein of the Rhode Island Superior Court. He graduated with a B.A. in Government from St. John’s University in Queens, New York, magna cum laude. He is admitted to practice law in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. To contact Attorney McBurney, call 401-824-5100 or email pmcburney@pldolaw.com.

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