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ZAKHAR MELKONYAN v. LOUIS W. SULLIVAN

decided: June 10, 1991.

ZAKHAR MELKONYAN, PETITIONER
v.
LOUIS W. SULLIVAN, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES



ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT.

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

Author: O'connor

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

A party that prevails against the United States in a civil action is entitled, in certain circumstances, to an award of attorney's fees, court costs, and other expenses. Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. Among other requirements, the prevailing party must submit to the court an application for fees and expenses "within thirty days of final judgment in the action." § 2412(d)(1)(B). This case requires us to decide whether an administrative decision rendered following a remand from the District Court is a "final judgment" within the meaning of EAJA.

I

In May 1982, petitioner Zakhar Melkonyan filed an application for disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program established by Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded that petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision. In June 1984, petitioner timely filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Central District of California seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates the review provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

On May 30, 1984, shortly before filing the complaint, petitioner filed a second application for SSI disability benefits accompanied by new evidence of disability. In August 1984, petitioner's second application was approved as of the date it was filed. He then sought summary judgment in his action to review the administrative decision denying his first application for benefits. The Secretary cross-filed for summary judgment.

While the summary judgment motions were pending, the Secretary requested that the case be remanded to the Appeals Council so the first application could be reconsidered in light of the new evidence. Petitioner initially opposed the Secretary's remand request, arguing that evidence already in the record amply established his disability. Three months later, however, citing failing health and the prospect of increased medical expenses, petitioner moved the court to "either issue [the decision] or remand the cause to the Secretary." App. 9-10. In response, on April 3, 1985, the District Court entered a "judgment" which read in its entirety:

"Defendant's motion to remand, concurred in by plaintiff, is granted. The matter is remanded to the Secretary for all further proceedings." App. 11.

One month after the remand the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's prior decision and found petitioner disabled as of the date of his original SSI application. That decision granted petitioner all the relief he had initially requested.

More than a year later, petitioner applied to the District Court for attorney's fees under EAJA. The Magistrate recommended that the fee application be denied, concluding that the Secretary's decision to deny the first application was "substantially justified" at the time because the original record did not establish that petitioner was disabled. App. 20-21. The District Court agreed and denied the fee request.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated the District Court's judgment. It agreed that petitioner was not eligible for attorney's fees under EAJA, but for a different reason. Melkonyan v. Heckler, 895 F.2d 556 (1990). The Court of Appeals noted that EAJA requires an application for fees to be filed within 30 days of the "final judgment in the action," a term defined in the statute as a "judgment that is final and not appealable." Id., at 557 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(G)). In the court's view, its task was to determine when that "final and not appealable" judgment was rendered. 895 F.2d, at 557.

The Court of Appeals recognized that the District Court's order remanding the case to the Secretary was not a "final judgment" because both parties anticipated further administrative proceedings. Id., at 557-558. On remand, the Appeals Council reversed itself and held for petitioner; having won all he had asked for, there was no reason to return to the District Court. Under those circumstances the Court of Appeals concluded that the Appeals Council's decision to award benefits was, in effect, a "final judgment" under EAJA, thereby commencing the 30-day period for filing the fee application. Id., at 558-559. Because petitioner waited more than a year after ...


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