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

By Patrick J. McBurney

February 18, 2020

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 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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