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Harter v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

June 15, 2015

TABITHA CHRISTINE HARTER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR AWARD OF ATTORNEY FEES PURSUANT TO THE EQUAL ACCESS TO JUSTICE ACT, 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)

KAREN L. STROMBOM, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court on plaintiff's filing of a motion for attorney fees pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"). See Dkt. 17. Plaintiff seeks a total of $7, 193 in attorney's fees. See Dkt. 19-1. After reviewing plaintiff's motion, defendant's response to that motion, plaintiff's reply thereto, and the remaining record, the Court finds that for the reasons set forth below plaintiff's motion should be granted.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On March 6, 2015, the Court issued an order reversing defendant's decision to deny plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits, and remanding this matter for further administrative proceedings. See Dkt. 15. Specifically, the Court found the ALJ erred in evaluating disability ratings from the Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA"), in evaluating the medical opinion evidence from Paul J. Marano, Ph.D., and Harry Atlas, Ph.D., and in evaluating the side effects of plaintiff's pain medication, and thus in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity and in finding her to be capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. On May 17, 2015, plaintiff filed her motion for attorney fees. See Dkt. 17. As defendant has filed her response to that motion, and plaintiff has filed her reply thereto, this matter is now ripe for the Court's review.

DISCUSSION

The EAJA provides in relevant part:

Except as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses, in addition to any costs awarded pursuant to subsection (a), incurred by that party in any civil action (other than cases sounding in tort), including proceedings for judicial review of agency action, brought by or against the United States in any court having jurisdiction of that action, 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). Thus, to be eligible for attorney fees: (1) the claimant must be a "prevailing party"; (2) the government's position must not have been "substantially justified"; and (3) no "special circumstances" exist that make an award of attorney fees unjust. Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 158 (1990).

In Social Security disability cases, "[a] plaintiff who obtains a sentence four remand is considered a prevailing party for purposes of attorneys' fees." Akopyan v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 852, 854 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 301-02 (1993)).[1] Such a plaintiff is considered a prevailing party even when the case is remanded for further administrative proceedings. Id. There is no issue here as to whether plaintiff is a prevailing party given that as discussed above, this case has been remanded for further administrative proceedings. In addition, defendant does not argue that there are - nor do there appear to be - any special circumstances making an award of attorney's fees unjust.

As noted above, to be entitled to attorney fees under the EAJA defendant's position also must not be "substantially justified." Jean, 496 U.S. at 158. Normally, for defendant's position to be "substantially justified, " this requires an inquiry into whether defendant's conduct was "justified in substance or in the main' - that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person" - and "had a reasonable basis both in law and fact.'" Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 1255, 1258 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988)); Penrod v. Apfel, 54 F.Supp.2d 961, 964 (D. Ariz. 1999) (citing Pierce, 487 U.S. at 565); see also Jean, 496 U.S. at 158 n.6; Flores v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 562, 569-70 (9th Cir. 1995). As such, this "does not mean justified to a high degree.'" Corbin v. Apfel, 149 F.3d 1051, 1052 (9th Cir. 1998) (quoting Pierce, 487 U.S. at 565). On the other hand, "the test" for substantial justification "must be more than mere reasonableness." Kali v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 329, 331 (9th Cir. 1988).

Defendant has the burden of establishing substantial justification. See Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1258. Defendant's position must be " as a whole, substantially justified." Id. at 1258-59 (emphasis in original). That position also "must be substantially justified' at each stage of the proceedings.'" Corbin, 149 F.3d at 1052 ("Whether the claimant is ultimately found to be disabled or not, the government's position at each [discrete] stage [in question] must be substantially justified.'") (citations omitted); see also Hardisty v. Astrue, 592 F.3d 1072, 1078 (9th Cir. 2010) ("[D]istrict courts should focus on whether the government's position on the particular issue on which the claimant earned remand was substantially justified, not on whether the government's ultimate disability determination was substantially justified."). Accordingly, the government must establish that it was substantially justified both in terms of "the underlying conduct of the ALJ" and "its litigation position defending the ALJ's error." Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1259. As the Ninth Circuit further explained:

The plain language of the EAJA states that the "position of the United States' means, in addition to the position taken by the United States in the civil action, the action or failure to act by the agency upon which the civil action is based." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(D); Jean, 496 U.S. at 159, 110 S.Ct. 2316 (explaining that the "position" relevant to the inquiry "may encompass both the agency's prelitigation conduct and the [agency's] subsequent litigation positions"). Thus we "must focus on two questions: first, whether the government was substantially justified in taking its original action; and, second, whether the government was substantially justified in defending the validity of the action in court." Kali v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 329, 332 (9th Cir. 1988).

Id .; see also Kali, 854 F.2d at 332 (noting government's position is analyzed under "totality of the circumstances" test)[2]; Thomas v. Peterson, 841 F.2d 332, 334-35 (9th Cir. 1988).

Indeed, the Ninth Circuit has explicitly stated that "[i]t is difficult to imagine any circumstance in which the government's decision to defend its actions in court would be substantially justified, but the underlying decision would not" ( Sampson, 103 F.3d at 922 (quoting Flores, 49 F.3d at 570 n.11)), and the EAJA creates "a presumption that fees will be awarded unless the government's position was substantially justified" ( Thomas, 841 F.2d at 335; see also Flores, 49 F.3d at 569 (noting that as prevailing party, plaintiff was entitled to attorney's fees unless government could show its position in regard to issue on which court based its remand was substantially justified)). ...


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