United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
ROBrN J. BLACKSTOCK, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.
ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR
L.ROBART United States District Judge
matter comes before the court on Plaintiff Robin J.
Blackstock's motion for attorney's fees pursuant to
the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C.
§ 2412. (Mot. (Dkt # 15).) Defendant Commissioner Nancy
A. Berryhill ("the Commissioner") challenges Ms.
Blackstock's request for statutory attorney's fees on
the grounds that the Commissioner's position in this
matter was substantially justified and had a reasonable basis
in fact and law. (Resp. (Dkt. #17).) Having considered the
parties' briefing, the relevant portions of the record,
and the applicable law, the court GRANTS Ms. Blackstock's
motion for attorney's fees.
BACKGROUND & ANALYSIS
January 4, 2017, the court adopted the report and
recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Karen L.
Strombom and reversing and remanding the Commissioner's
decision to deny benefits for further administrative
proceedings. (1/14/17 Order (Dkt. # 13).) The court found
that the ALJ committed harmful errors in evaluating the
opinion of treating physician Dennis Mann, D.O., Ms.
Blackstock's testimony, and the lay witness testimony.
(See Report and Recommendation ("R&R")
(Dkt. # 12) at 2.) The court reversed the Commissioner's
decision pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). (See 1/14/17 Order.)
action brought by or against the United States, the EAJA
requires that "a court shall award to a prevailing party
other than the United States fees and other expenses .. .
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).
Ms. Blackstock was the prevailing party because the court
reversed and remanded the Commissioner's decision to deny
benefits for further administrative proceedings.
(See 1/14/17 Order.) However, the Commissioner
argues that she was substantially justified in defending the
matter. (See Resp. at 1.)
Commissioner has the burden of proving that her position was
substantially justified. See Hardisty v. Astrue, 592
F.3d 1072, 1076 n.2 (9th Cir. 2010). A "substantially
justified position must have a reasonable basis both in law
and fact." Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d
1255, 1258 (9th Cir. 2001) (internal citations omitted). When
determining the issue of substantial justification, the court
reviews only the issues that led to remand. See Toebler
v. Colvin, 749 F.3d 830, 834 (9th Cir. 2014).
Furthermore, the Commissioner's position includes both
her litigation position and "the underlying agency
action giving rise to the civil action." Meier v.
Colvin, 727 F.3d 867, 870 (9th Cir. 2013). Even if the
Commissioner's litigation position is justified, an award
of EAJA fees is nevertheless appropriate if the
Commissioner's underlying action-the ALJ's final
decision-was not substantially justified. See Id. at
the court found that the ALJ's reasons for discounting
Dr. Mann's opinion, Ms. Blackstoclc's testimony, and
the lay witness testimony were not specific, legitimate, and
supported by substantial evidence, (See R&R at
5-12.) The fact that the Commissioner did not prevail on the
merits does not compel the conclusion that her position was
not substantially justified. See Kali v. Bowen, 854
F.2d 329, 334 (9th Cir. 1988). However, a determination by
the court that the administrative decision was not supported
by substantial evidence is a "strong indication"
that the Commissioner's position was not substantially
justified. Thangaraja v. Gonzales, 428 F.3d 870, 874
(9th Cir. 2005).
Commissioner defends the ALJ's reasons for discounting
Dr. Mann's opinion by reiterating the unsuccessful
arguments that she made in briefing the merits. (See
Resp. at 3-4.) The Commissioner states that contrary opinions
from examining and non-examining physicians constitute
specific and legitimate reasons to discount a treating
physician's opinion. (See Id. at 3.) However,
the case cited by the Commissioner in fact holds that a
contrary opinion produces the need for a specific, legitimate
reason to discount a treating physician's opinion.
See Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th
Cir. 2001). The contrary opinion "does not alone
constitute a specific, legitimate reason." Id.,
The court cited this reasoning in finding that the ALJ erred
in discounting Dr. Marrn's opinion. (See R&R
at 6-7.) The court finds no reason to now conclude that the
ALJ's decision was substantially justified.
Commissioner also argues that her position regarding other
errors committed by the ALJ was substantially justified.
(See Resp. at 4-5.) However, the court need not
address those arguments because the Commissioner has not met
her burden of proving substantial justification regarding the
ALJ's error in evaluating Dr. Marrn's opinion.
See Comm'r, IMS. v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 161-62
(1990) ("While the parties' postures on individual
matters may be more or less justified, the EAJA-like other
fee-shifting statutes-favors treating a case as an inclusive
whole, rather than as atomized line-items.").
court also concludes that there are no special circumstances
that render an EAJA award unjust. Accordingly, the court
awards Ms. Blackstock attorney's fees under the EAJA.
Amount of Fees
Blackstock requests $4, 566.52 in attorney's fees and
$433.19 in costs. (See Mot. at 1.) The Commissioner
does not object to the amount of fees that Ms. Blackstock
requests. (See Resp.) Nevertheless, the court has an
independent duty to review the submitted itemized log of
hours to determine the reasonableness of hours requested in
each case. See Hensley v. Eckerhart,461 U.S. 424,
436-37 (1983). Given the facts and circumstances of the
matter herein, and based on the briefing, declarations, and