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Roberts v. NTSB

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

January 23, 2015

JAMES L. ROBERTS, PETITIONER
v.
NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD AND FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION, RESPONDENTS

Argued October 9, 2014

On Petition for Review of an Order of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Deanna L. Weidner argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the briefs was David B. Anderson.

Sonia K. McNeil, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief were Stuart F. Delery, Assistant Attorney General at the time the brief was filed, and Michael J. Singer, Attorney. Michael E. Robinson, Trial Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, and James A. Barry, Senior Attorney, Federal Aviation Administration, entered appearances.

Before: WILKINS, Circuit Judge, and SENTELLE and RANDOLPH, Senior Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 919

Wilkins, Circuit Judge.

In 2009, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suspended the license of Petitioner James L. Roberts, an airplane mechanic, for 120 days--and thereby also stripped him of his ability to earn a living practicing his craft. After roughly a year and a half of legal proceedings, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which hears appeals from FAA orders, vacated the suspension and found that the FAA's position had been unreasonable and not substantially justified. Petitioner then sought recovery of legal fees and expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 5 U.S.C. § 504(a)(1), but the NTSB denied fee-shifting on the grounds that Petitioner failed to show that he had " incurred" the fees associated with his legal defense in the license suspension proceedings, as required for an EAJA recovery. Even though the NTSB ultimately rejected a finding that Petitioner's employer had agreed to pay the fees and also recognized that Petitioner's lawyers had not performed services pro bono, it still concluded that Petitioner had not proved that he had incurred the fees.

The question before the Court is whether the NTSB's conclusion was arbitrary and capricious. We hold that it was, and that the NTSB should have considered that under the Alabama law of quantum meruit, Petitioner was obligated to pay his attorneys for the value of their services; as such, Petitioner " incurred" fees and may obtain EAJA fee-shifting. We therefore grant the Petition, vacate the decision, and remand the case to the NTSB to determine the appropriate amount of fees and expenses to award.

I.

At the time of the events in the underlying license suspension proceeding, Petitioner was Director of Maintenance for Alabama-based Darby Aviation (" Darby" ). In re Roberts, NTSB Order No. EA-5696 (2014), 2014 WL 581820, at *7 (" NTSB Fee Order" ). In July 2009, the FAA ordered a 120-day suspension of Petitioner's mechanic certification based on alleged regulatory violations including returning an aircraft to service when it was not in airworthy condition. See Administrator v. Roberts, NTSB Order No. EA-5556 (2010), 2010 WL 4253063, at *1. Petitioner contested the suspension before an NTSB Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) through four days of evidentiary hearings held in March and April 2010, after which the ALJ reduced Petitioner's suspension to 60 days.[1] Id. Petitioner and the FAA cross-appealed

Page 920

to the Board, which reversed the suspension entirely on the ground that the FAA had failed to present sufficient evidence to support its factual predicates. Id. The FAA sought rehearing, which the Board denied in January 2011. See Administrator v. Roberts, NTSB Order No. EA-5568 (2011), 2011 WL 289248, at *3. Although he initially appeared pro se, Petitioner was represented by counsel in most of these proceedings.

On February 23, 2011, Petitioner filed an application under the EAJA seeking $66,693.27 in fees and expenses of the attorneys who represented him. ...


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