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Cosio v. Berryhill

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

April 11, 2018

RAMIRO H. COSIO, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendants.


          Theresa L. Fricke United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Ramiro H. Cosio's filing of a motion for attorney fees, expenses, and costs pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2412, the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). Dkt. 23. After amending his motion, Mr. Cosio seeks a total of $6, 100.49 in attorney fees, $414 in costs, and $5.97 in expenses. Dkt. 27.

         A request for attorneys' fees should not become a second major litigation. Decker v. Berryhill, 856 F.3d 659, 663 (9th Cir. 2017). The Court may grant a plaintiff's motion because the ALJ's reasons are not supported by the record. See Meier v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 867, 873 (9th Cir. 2013).

         The EAJA provides:

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).

         The government bears the burden of proving that its position was substantially justified. Gardner v. Berryhill, 856 F.3d 652, 656 (9th Cir. 2017). The Court considers whether the government's conduct was “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)). Substantial justification is “more than mere reasonableness, ” though it “does not mean ‘justified to a high degree.'” Kali v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 329, 331 (9th Cir. 1988); Corbin, 149 F.3d at 1052 (quoting Pierce, 487 U.S. at 565).

         The Court must review the position of the United States in the civil action as well as the underlying action or inaction of the agency. Gardner, 856 F.3d at 656. The Court must determine whether the government's position on the particular issue on which the Court based the remand decision was substantially justified, not whether the ALJ would ultimately deny benefits after considering the case again on remand. Gardner, 856 F.3d at 656-57.

         In Corbin v. Apfel, the Ninth Circuit overturned the district court's decision denying the plaintiff's request for attorneys' fees. 149 F.3d 1051, 1052 (9th Cir. 1998). The Court observed that, because the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting the plaintiff's subjective complaints, this was such a fundamental error that it was difficult to justify the government's position on appeal in that case. Id. at 1053; see also Shafer v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 1067, 1071-72 (9th Cir. 2008) (holding that ALJ made the same type of fundamental error as ALJ in Corbin by failing “to provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting [claimant's] subjective complaints”). When the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, this strongly indicates that the government's position lacks substantial justification under 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). Meier, 727 F.3d at 872.

         Here, it is uncontested that Mr. Cosio is a prevailing party given that this case was remanded for an award of benefits. Akopyan v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 852, 854 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 301-02 (1993)). In addition, the Commissioner does not argue there are any special circumstances making an award of attorney fees unjust.

         The Commissioner does not appear to contend, either, that the ALJ's underlying decision was substantially justified. Because both the underlying agency decision and the Commissioner's litigation position must be substantially justified to avoid EAJA fees, the Commissioner's failure to contend that the ALJ decision was substantially justified would alone lead this Court to grant Mr. Cosio's EAJA motion. See Meier, 727 F.3d at 870. The Court nonetheless addresses the Commissioner's arguments below.

         The Commissioner asks that this Court deny Mr. Cosio's motion because the government's position in defending the ALJ decision was substantially justified. In particular, the Commissioner asserts that a reasonable person could have found, as the ALJ did, that objective evidence did not support the opinion of David Wigutoff, Ph.D., a psychiatrist who examined Mr. Cosio. Dkt. 25, pp. 2-3.

         Even if the Commissioner is correct on this narrow point, it would not make either the ALJ decision or the Commissioner's litigation position substantially justified. As this Court observed in reversing the ALJ decision, the ALJ was required to give “‘persuasive, specific, valid reasons'” to assign less weight to Mr. Cosio's disability rating from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the record needed to support those reasons. Dkt. 20, p. 5; Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1236 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 694-95 (9th Cir. 2009)). The ALJ stated only that the VA rating was “inconsistent with the evidence of record through the date last insured, the period at issue, ” pointing to evidence that Mr. Cosio could attend group therapy. Dkt. 20, p. 6; AR 1982. She also rejected the underlying opinion of Dr. Wigutoff. Id. The Court found that these were not persuasive, specific, or valid reasons and that the record did not support them. Dkt. 20, pp. 6-9.

         The record's lack of support for the ALJ's reasoning is a “strong indication” that the ALJ's position was not substantially justified. Meier, 727 F.3d at 873. The Commissioner offers no reason that this would be a “decidedly unusual case” in which the ALJ's decision lacked substantial evidence to support it but was nonetheless substantially justified. See Meier, 727 F.3d at 872. Because the ALJ ...

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