The opinion of the court was delivered by: Foreman, Chief Judge:
The matter before the Court is plaintiff Stone's Application for
Attorney's Fees made pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA),
28 U.S.C. § 2412. The only issues raised by the parties are whether
plaintiff was a "prevailing" party within the meaning of the Act and
whether the position of the government in litigating the case was
In the case at bar, plaintiff's claim was remanded by the U.S.
Magistrate pursuant to Congress' passage of the Social Security
Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984 (the Act) which reestablished the
"medical improvement standard" as the sole criteria by which the
Secretary could terminate disability benefits.*fn1 Upon remand, the
Secretary, using the "new" criteria, found that plaintiff had been
wrongfully denied benefits and reinstated them. For this reason it is the
government's position that the relief requested by plaintiff was achieved
not by the filing of his suit, but rather by a change in the law.
Specifically, the government maintains that the Act itself ordered remand
of plaintiff's case to the Secretary and that the agency's subsequent
reinstatement of benefits was due to their reevaluation of his claim
under the "new" standard as opposed to being a result of the instant
litigation. For the reasons stated below, this Court does not agree.
The EAJA provides in part that an award of attorney's fees shall be
made to the "prevailing" party unless the Court finds that the position
of the United States was substantially justified or that special
circumstances make an award unjust. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A).
Congress, however, did not define the term "prevailing party" and a
thorough search of Seventh Circuit case law reveals no definition of the
term as it is used in the EAJA.
The only judicial interpretation of the term in this Circuit is found
with respect to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. For purposes of section 1988,
plaintiffs are deemed prevailing parties if they succeed on any
significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the
parties sought in bringing suit. Lovell v. City of Kankakee, 783 F.2d 95,
96 (7th Cir. 1986) (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103
S.Ct. 1933, 1939, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983)). In cases where a settlement is
reached, plaintiff's lawsuit must be causally linked to the achievement
of the relief obtained. In other words, the suit must have played a
provocative role in obtaining the requested relief. Harrington v. DeVito,
656 F.2d 264, 266, 267 (7th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 993, 102
S.Ct. 1621, 71 L.Ed.2d 854 (1982). Accordingly, parties may be considered
to have prevailed when they vindicate rights without formally obtaining
relief. Gekas v. Atty. Registration & Disciplinary Com'n., 793 F.2d 846,
849 (7th Cir. 1986) (quoting Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129, 100
S.Ct. 2570, 65 L.Ed.2d 653 (1980)).
Other circuits have construed the term as used in the EAJA along lines
not inconsistent with the Seventh Circuit's construction of it in section
1988 cases. For example, the Third Circuit held, with respect to the term
as used in the EAJA, that for a party to "prevail" in disability
termination cases, he must not only secure remand of the case, but also a
subsequent award of benefits. Brown v. Secretary of Health and Human
Services, 747 F.2d 878, 884 (3rd Cir. 1984). Similarly, in applying the
term to a deportation case in which the plaintiff sought attorney's fees
under the EAJA, the Tenth Circuit held that a plaintiff prevails for
attorney's fees purposes if success on a significant issue of litigation
achieves some of the benefit the plaintiff sought in bringing suit.
Kopunec v. Nelson, 801 F.2d 1226, 1229 (10th Cir. 1986). Thus, the Court
looks to the substance of the litigation to determine whether an
applicant has substantially prevailed in its position, and not merely the
technical disposition of the case or motion. Kopunec, supra, id. (quoting
Austin v. Department of Commerce, 742 F.2d 1417, 1420 (Fed.Cir. 1984).
In a case such as the instant one, where the defendant claims its own
remedial action (here its reevaluation of plaintiff's claim for benefits
in light of a "new" standard promulgated by Congress) resulted in the
reinstatement of benefits, rather than plaintiff's lawsuit, the test is
whether plaintiff's lawsuit was a catalyst motivating defendants to
provide the primary relief sought in a manner desired by litigation.
Martin v. Heckler, 773 F.2d 1145, 1149 (11th Cir. 1985) (quoting Robinson
v. Kimbrough, 652 F.2d 458, 465 (5th Cir. 1981)).
In a recent case from the First Circuit, the United States District
Court for the District of Maine was called upon to decide an application
for attorney's fees in a situation factually similar to the instant one.
Deciding that the question, essentially, was whether the connection
between plaintiff's suit and his recovery of benefits was sufficiently
strong to establish the plaintiff as the "prevailing party," the court
In the circumstances of the present case the court
is satisfied that the causal connection is a close
one. Plaintiff brought the present action in order to
challenge the Secretary's denial of benefits on the
basis of an alleged misapplication of the "severity"
test. Plaintiff's position in that regard was a
correct one. Defendant did misapply the severity
test. The fortuitous enactment of the Social Security
Disability Benefits Reform Act merely afforded the
Secretary an alternative basis upon which to determine
that plaintiff was entitled to disability benefits.
The fact of the matter is that plaintiff would have
prevailed on his allegation that the Secretary
misapplied the severity test. Therefore, the causal
connection between plaintiff's suit and the
Secretary's reversal of position, while cosmetically
obscured, was very real indeed. Accordingly, plaintiff
is a "prevailing party" within the meaning of the
Sherman v. Bowen, 647 F. Supp. 700 (D.C. Me. 1986).
As the Senate committee report on the EAJA stated:
While the influence of the bureaucracy over all
aspects of life has increased, the ability of most
citizens to contest any unreasonable exercise of
authority has decreased. . . . The bill rests on the
premise that a party who chooses to litigate an issue
against the Government is not only representing his or
her own vested interest but also refining and
formulating public policy. . . . An adjudication, for
example, may show that the policy or factual
foundation underlying an agency rule is erroneous or
inaccurate. . . . The bill thus recognizes that the
expense of correcting error on the part of the
Government should not rest wholly on the party whose
willingness to litigate . . . has helped define the
limits of Federal authority.
H.R.Rep. No. 96-1418, 96th Cong. 2d Sess. 10, reprinted in (1980)
U.S.Code Cong. & Ad.News 4953, 4984, 4988-89. [Emphasis added.] In the
context of disability benefits
termination cases, the ...