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Acheson v. Berryhill

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

June 5, 2017

DANIEL ACHESON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES

          ROBERT S. LASNIK United States District Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Daniel Acheson's motion for attorney's fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412 (“EAJA”). See Dkt. 14. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) challenges plaintiffs 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, and the Commissioner challenges the amount of plaintiff s requested fees on the grounds that the amount is unreasonable under the particular facts of this case. See Dkt. 16. The Court disagrees and GRANTS plaintiffs motion for statutory fees.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On February 2, 2017, this Court issued an order reversing and remanding the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits for further administrative proceedings. See Dkt. 12. The Court found that (1) the ALJ erred by failing to provide specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence to discount the opinions of state agency psychological consultant Patricia Kraft, Ph.D., and examining psychologist Amanda Ragonesi, Psy.D., and (2) the errors were harmful because the resulting residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and step-five finding were not supported by substantial evidence. See id. at 7-10. The Court reversed the Commissioner's decision pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further administrative proceedings due to the harmful error. See id. at 13-14.

         II. DISCUSSION

         In any 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). When determining the issue of substantial justification, the court reviews only the “issues that led to remand” in determining if an award of fees is appropriate. See Toebler v. Colvin, 749 F.3d 830, 834 (9th Cir. 2014).

         Plaintiff was the prevailing party because the Court reversed and remanded the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits for further administrative proceedings. See Dkt. 12. The ALJ's failure to provide sufficient reasons to discount Dr. Kraft's and Dr. Ragonesi's opinions led to the remand. See id. at 7-10.

         A. Substantial Justification

         The Commissioner argues that her position that the ALJ provided sufficient reasons to discount Dr. Kraft's and Dr. Ragonesi's opinions was substantially justified. See Dkt. 16. The 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). In addition, 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) (citations omitted). 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) (citing Oregon Envtl. Council v. Kunzman, 817 F.2d 484, 498 (9th Cir. 1987)). 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).

         Here, the Commissioner simply reiterates her position from the original litigation, arguing that the ALJ's errors in evaluating the medical evidence were harmless because the ALJ's decision was generally “supported by substantial evidence.” See Dkt. 16 at 3-4. However, this Court found that such an approach to harmful error analysis would “essentially relieve the ALJ of her role as arbiter” and lead to an “absurd result.” See Dkt. 12 at 8. Having found that the ALJ's errors in evaluating the medical evidence left the RFC unsupported by substantial evidence, the Court now finds no reason that the Commissioner's position was otherwise substantially justified. The Court also concludes that there are no special circumstances that render an EAJA award in this matter unjust. Accordingly, the Court will award plaintiff attorney's fees under the EAJA.

         B. Amount of Fees

         According to the United States Supreme Court, “the fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983). 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 id. at 433, 436-37.

         Once the Court determines that a plaintiff is entitled to a reasonable fee, “the amount of the fee, of course, must be determined on the facts of each case.” Id at 429, 433 n.7. “[T]he most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.” Id at 433.

         Here, plaintiff prevailed on the single claim of whether or not the denial of his social security application was not based on harmful legal error. When the case involves a “common core of facts or will be based on related legal theories . . . the district court should focus on the significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation.” See id at 435. The Supreme Court concluded ...


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