Last summer a small Washington, D.C., printing and typesetting firm submitted the low bid to the Government Printing Office for a contract to publish the Federal Personnel Manual. But instead of getting the contract, the company, Photo Data Inc., received a terse letter from the GPO stating that the bid was considered "nonresponsible."

Scott Watkins, president of the company, decided to fight in court, and the GPO eventually agreed to award the contract to the firm. But Watkins did not stop there. Using a law that went into effect last Oct. 1, he has convinced a federal judge that the GPO should pay nearly $6,000 in legal costs that the firm incurred during the dispute.

Although a number of similar cases are before the courts, Photo Data is believed to be the first plaintiff to be awarded fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. It requires federal agencies to pick up the legal fees and costs when they lose a case and can't prove that they had a good reason to bring (or contest) it.

Except for the largest corporations and the wealthiest individuals in America, almost anyone who wins a lawsuit against the government is eligible to collect.

The court has the authority to order the government agency to pay up to $75 per hour in attorney fees, costs for expert witnesses and other incidental expenses.

The law is designed to discourage the government from bringing frivolous or unwarranted cases that individuals or small businesses may not be capable financially of fighting.

In the case of Photo Data, GPO decided to try to settle the case after the company filed suit. The GPO then reexamined Photo Data's presentation, declared the company responsible and accepted its low bid.

Two weeks after receiving the contract, the company filed under the act to collect more than $10,700 in attorney fees and expenses.

U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn, in an opinion last month, cut back the allowed amount to just under $6,000, saying that the attorneys had charged more than $75 per hour and that they had not justified the number of hours worked. He called the GPO behavior "precisely the type of government action that small businesses do not ordinarily have the resources to contest, and the act is therefore intended to prevent."

Photo Data doesn't have the money yet, however, because the GPO is deciding whether to appeal.

Watkins sees the award as a victory for all small businesses. "In the past, rather than fight it, you'd just let the government do what it wanted to do," he said. "Now the law tells the small contractor, 'If you're right and you know you're right, you can afford to fight them.' "