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Augustine v. Department of Veterans Affairs

429 F.3d 1334 (2005)

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Augustine v. Department of Veterans Affairs

United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

429 F.3d 1334 (2005)

Facts

Cassandra Augustine (plaintiff) was a veteran who had been wrongfully denied a job by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) (defendant). Augustine filed a claim with the Merit Systems Protection Board (the board), a federal agency, for the wrongful job denial. Augustine’s claim was heard in California, where Augustine lived. The board’s rules allowed claimants to be represented by both attorneys and nonattorney representatives. As the proceedings became more involved, Augustine hired attorney Wild Chang to represent her. Chang was licensed to practice law in Massachusetts and New York but not in California. With Chang’s help, Augustine won her case and was awarded the job, back pay, and liquidated damages. Under a federal fee-shifting statute, as the winning party, Augustine was also entitled to have the VA pay Augustine for attorney’s fees and costs she had incurred in pursuing a claim with the board to validate her rights. By guaranteeing fee payment for winning cases, this fee-shifting statute was meant to encourage attorneys to provide legal services to veterans with financial issues and to bring valid claims to the board’s attention. Although a claimant could also be represented by a nonattorney, the fee-shifting statute provided fees for representation services provided by attorneys only. Because Chang was not licensed to practice law in California, where the board proceedings took place, the board found that Chang could not have been legally practicing law during the proceedings and must have been acting as Augustine’s nonattorney representative instead. Accordingly, the board denied Augustine’s request to have the VA pay her approximately $40,000 attorney-fee bill. Augustine appealed the board’s denial to the Federal Circuit.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Dyk, J.)

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