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State v. United States

United States District Court, D. Alaska

May 3, 2016

STATE OF ALASKA, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; CHICKEN VENTURES, LLC, an Alaska Limited Liability Company; GEORGE W. SEUFFERT, SR.; GEORGE W. SEUFFERT, JR., Defendants.

ORDER RE ATTORNEY’S FEES

SHARON L. GLEASON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Before the Court at Docket 91 is the State of Alaska’s Motion for Award of Attorney’s Fees and Determination of Prevailing Party for Purposes of Costs. The United States responded at Docket 98, and the State of Alaska replied at Docket 99. The parties jointly moved to bifurcate the issues as: (1) whether the United States is liable for fees, expenses, and costs, and (2) whether the specific amounts claimed by the State of Alaska are reasonable.[1] The Court granted the parties’ request to bifurcate.[2] This order addresses the first issue only; oral argument on that issue was held on October 22, 2015.[3]

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The State filed this quiet title action on June 1, 2012 seeking to quiet title to the submerged lands of a portion of the Mosquito Fork of the Fortymile River.[4] On June 1, 2015, the State moved for summary judgment.[5] The parties fully briefed the summary judgment motion; oral argument on the motion was scheduled for July 28, 2015.[6] A seven-day bench trial was scheduled to commence on August 17, 2015.[7]

The day before the scheduled oral argument, on July 27, 2015, the United States disclaimed its interest in the disputed portion of the Mosquito Fork.[8] On July 28, 2015, the Court vacated the oral argument and the trial, and entered a Decree and Order confirming the disclaimer.[9] The State now moves for attorney’s fees and costs, based on its assertion that it is the prevailing party in this litigation and that the United States has acted in bad faith.[10] The United States opposes.

DISCUSSION

I. Jurisdiction

When this action was filed, the Court had subject matter jurisdiction over the case pursuant to the Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, [11] and the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201. The Court had supplemental jurisdiction over any pendent state law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). Once the Court confirmed the United States’ disclaimer, the Court’s jurisdiction to decide the merits of the parties’ dispute ceased.[12]

The United States asserts that upon confirmation of the disclaimer, the Court lost jurisdiction over all aspects of the case, including the jurisdiction to award fees and costs. It asserts that after confirmation of the disclaimer, the United States would have needed to expressly waive its sovereign immunity again in order for the Court to have jurisdiction to award attorney’s fees, which it has not done.[13] The State responds that so long as the Court initially had jurisdiction, it retains the authority to award attorney’s fees even after its subject matter jurisdiction ceased to issue a decision on the merits.[14]

“The [Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA)] renders the United States liable for attorney’s fees for which it would not otherwise be liable, and thus amounts to a partial waiver of sovereign immunity.”[15] The EAJA provides that “[A] court may award reasonable fees and expenses of attorneys, in addition to the costs which may be awarded pursuant to subsection (a), to the prevailing party in any civil action brought by or against the United States . . . in any court having jurisdiction of such action.”[16] In United States v. 87 Skyline Terrace, the district court denied two property owners attorney’s fees from the United States under the EAJA in a forfeiture proceeding after the case had been dismissed with prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.[17] On appeal, the United States asserted that the district court lacked the authority to award any attorney’s fees because the court’s subject matter jurisdiction had ceased. But the Ninth Circuit interpreted the phrase “in any court having jurisdiction” within the EAJA to authorize the district court to award fees after the case had been dismissed, reasoning that the district court had been the correct forum to resolve the forfeiture proceeding, and would have had subject matter jurisdiction but for a procedural oversight by the United States.[18]

The Court holds that in accordance with Ninth Circuit precedent on the issue, the Court may award attorney’s fees under the EAJA at this time because it had subject matter jurisdiction to decide the merits of the quiet title proceeding until it confirmed the disclaimer of interest.

II. Prevailing Party Status

The United States next asserts that the State is not a prevailing party under 28 U.S.C. § 2412 because the United States’ disclaimer was a “purely voluntary and self-executing” document. The United States maintains that the Court’s subsequent order confirming the disclaimer did not change the rights of the parties.[19] Rather, the United States contends that the order “merely removed the jurisdiction of the Court over the State’s claims.”[20] The State responds that the Court incorporated the United States’ disclaimer into the July 28, 2015 order, thereby changing the rights of the parties. And the State notes that the voluntary nature of the United States’ disclaimer is of no consequence when the State received all of its requested relief on the merits through the judicially confirmed disclaimer.[21]

The prevailing party is the “party in whose favor a judgment is rendered, regardless of the amount of damages awarded.”[22] “This definition requires the party to have achieved ‘a material alteration in the legal relationship of the parties’ that is ‘judicially sanctioned.’”[23] And this alteration in a legal relationship may be due to a settlement agreement; it need not be involuntary or “include an admission of liability by the defendant.”[24] Finally, “[t]he form in which the relief comes is less important than that it be the relief the plaintiff sued to get.”[25]

There does not appear to be any real disagreement that the State received all of the relief that it had sought when it filed this lawsuit. Instead, the parties disagree as to whether the relief was “judicially sanctioned.”

The United States filed its disclaimer on July 27, 2015 and moved the Court for confirmation, stating that “[i]n light of the United States’ disclaimer, and pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(e), the Court should enter an order confirming that disclaimer.”[26] The relevant statutory language of 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(e) states, “If the United States disclaims all interest in the real property or interest therein adverse to the plaintiff at any time prior to the actual commencement of the trial, which disclaimer is confirmed by order of the court, the jurisdiction of the court shall ...


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