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Beck v. Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services

Decided: January 29, 1991.

AMANDA BECK, A MINOR, BY HER FATHER, HENRY J. BECK, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE



Appealed from U.S. Claims Court; Judge Robinson.

Markey, Michel, and Lourie, Circuit Judges.

Michel

MICHEL, Circuit Judge

Amanda Beck appeals from the March 8, 1990 Order of the United States Claims Court denying her counsel's request for an award of costs he advanced in earlier district court litigation in this suit under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 300aa-1 through 300aa-34 (West Supp. 1990), denying approval of the agreement to pay part of his fees and costs from the compensation awarded to her, denying an attorney fees award under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d) (1988), and denying attorney fees as sanctions under Rule 11 of the Rules of the United States Claims Court (RUSCC). Beck v. Secretary of the Dep't of Health and Human Servs., No. 88-51V (Cl. Ct. March 8, 1990). Because the Claims Court correctly interpreted and applied the attorney fees provisions of the Vaccine Act and the EAJA, did not err in refusing to approve the fee agreement, and did not abuse its discretion in denying sanctions under RUSCC 11, we affirm the order appealed from.

BACKGROUND

Amanda Beck was born December 18, 1978, in Honolulu, Hawaii, where her parents, Gail and Henry Beck, were serving on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Amanda was a healthy baby at birth and showed normal growth and development during her first six weeks. On January 26, 1979, Amanda's parents took her to the Tripler Army Medical Center for a routine checkup, in the course of which she was given a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) inoculation. Following this injection, Amanda began to show signs of illness -- fever, lethargy, and seizures. She was given a second DPT shot on April 20, 1979, after which the seizures became more frequent. After a series of visits to various military medical facilities, she was diagnosed as probably suffering from pertussis encephalopathy, characterized by permanent severe brain damage. Amanda's mental development virtually ceased, such that by March 1981, when she was over two years old, she was described as having a developmental level less than that of a one year old child.

Amanda Beck today remains profoundly retarded. She requires constant care and attention, ongoing medical monitoring, physical and speech therapy, and will probably be required to wear diapers for the rest of her life.

In 1985, Henry Beck, on behalf of himself and Amanda, filed a lawsuit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671-2680 (1982), alleging malpractice by the military medical personnel who administered the DPT vaccine. Beck v. United States, No. 86 C, (N.D. Ill. Sept. 11, 1987) (reinstating case). The Becks had the civil action dismissed on November 14, 1988 in order to file a petition in the United States Claims Court for compensation under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (the "Vaccine Program"), which was established pursuant to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 (the "Vaccine Act"), Pub. L. No. 99-660, title III, 100 Stat. 3755 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 300aa-1 through 300aa-34 (West Supp. 1990)). The Vaccine Program, which took effect October 1, 1988, provides a no-fault compensation scheme for certain persons who die or are injured in connection with the administration of a vaccine. After an initial decision by a special master on Beck's petition, as required in Vaccine Act proceedings, 42 U.S.C.A. § 300aa-12(d), the Claims Court reviewed and largely adopted the special master's report, and awarded Beck $1,276,017 in compensation and $30,000 for attorney fees and costs. Beck v. Secretary of the Dep't of Health and Human Servs., No. 88-51V (Cl. Ct. Dec. 7, 1989).

Beck moved for an additional award of attorney fees and costs under the Vaccine Act, or alternatively, under the EAJA, and for approval of the agreement to pay attorney fees and costs exceeding the $30,000 fee award out of the $1.2 million compensation award. The special master issued a Supplemental Report on January 16, 1990, ruling that while no additional fees were recoverable under the EAJA, the Vaccine Act's $30,000 cap applies only to attorney fees, per se, so that additional expenses, characterized as "advanced costs," could and would be awarded. Noting that the Claims Court would lack jurisdiction to enforce a ruling on the propriety of a fee agreement between the Becks and their lawyer, the special master declined to approve or disapprove the agreement, on the ground that such a ruling would merely be an advisory opinion.

The Claims Court adopted the special master's report in part, declining to award additional attorney fees under the EAJA, and rejected the report in part, holding that advanced costs are included in the $30,000 cap so that no additional award could be made under the Vaccine Act, and explicitly denying the request for approval of the fee agreement between the Beck family and their counsel. Beck v. Secretary of the Dep't of Health and Human Servs., No. 88-51V, slip op. at 8 (Cl. Ct. March 8, 1990). The court also denied Beck's motion, made after the issuance of the special master's report, requesting sanctions under RUSCC 11. Id.

We have exclusive jurisdiction to hear Beck's appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(3) (1988).

Discussion

This appeal presents five distinct issues, which will be addressed in the following order: 1) whether the Vaccine Act's prohibition on counsel's seeking payment in excess of the $30,000 cap on attorney fees includes "advanced costs" as well as fees; 2) whether the Act prohibits counsel's seeking payment, from the compensation award, of attorney fees and costs associated with the prior civil action; 3) whether the Claims Court has jurisdiction to disapprove a private fee agreement between a petitioner and the attorney providing for the payment of additional attorney fees and costs beyond the statutory cap from the victim's compensation award; 4) whether the EAJA can be used to award such additional attorney fees in such cases; and 5) whether the Claims Court abused its discretion in denying Rule 11 sanctions in this case.

I

In addition to awarding compensation, the Vaccine Act provides for awards of attorney fees in "retrospective" cases (where the vaccine was administered prior to the October 1, 1988 effective date of the Vaccine Program), up to a limit of $30,000:

(b) Vaccines administered before effective date

Compensation awarded under the Program . . . may also include an amount, not to exceed a combined total of $30,000, for --

(1) lost earnings . . .,

(2) pain and suffering . . ., and

(3) reasonable attorneys' fees and costs (as provided in subsection (e) of this section).

42 U.S.C.A. § 300aa-15(b) (West Supp. 1990). Subsection (e) in turn details what is included in the "reasonable attorneys' fees and costs" and limits ...


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