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Banuelos v. Astrue

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


November 10, 2010

ASHLEY BANUELOS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jennifer L. Thurston United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER GRANTING IN PART PETITION FOR ATTORNEYS FEES PURSUANT TO EQUAL ACCESS TO JUSTICE ACT, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d) (Doc. 22)

Plaintiff sought judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for benefits. On October 20, 2010, Plaintiff filed a petition for attorney's fees in the amount of $2,328.79 pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). (Doc. 22 at 1). Defendant filed a brief in opposition to the motion on October 28, 2010. (Doc. 23). For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Plaintiff's motion for EAJA fees.

BACKGROUND

On July 29, 2010, the Court issued a decision and order directing remand for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 20).

On October 20, 2010, Plaintiff filed a motion for attorney's fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). Plaintiff seeks an award of $2,328.79 based upon a total of 4.5 hours of attorney work performed in 2009 and 8.9 hours of attorney work performed in 2010. (Doc. 22 at 3 and Attachment). In addition, Plaintiff requests that the Court award the fees directly to his attorney. (Id. at 4).

Defendant does not oppose the attorney's fee amount sought by Plaintiff, nor does he contend that the hours spent by counsel on this matter are unreasonable. Instead, he opposes Plaintiff's request that the fee amounts be awarded directly to Plaintiff's counsel.

ANALYSIS

1. Law Generally

With respect to fees awarded under the EAJA, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1(A) 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. (Emphasis added).

Fees awarded under this section must be reasonable and Plaintiff has the burden of proof on this point. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434, 437 (1983); see also Atkins v. Apfel, 154 F.3d 986, 988 (9th Cir. 1998) (specifically applying these principles to fee requests under the EAJA).

2. Plaintiff's Attorney's fees Request Is Reasonable but Must be Modified

As noted, Defendant does not challenge the fee request itself. The Court has examined the documentation submitted by Plaintiff and concludes that the hours expended by counsel are reasonable. However, the hourly rates sought by Plaintiff minimally fail to comport with the adjusted cost-of-living rates provided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. For instance, Plaintiff seeks compensation for fees performed in 2009 at the rate of $172.25 per hour. (Doc. 22 at 3). However, the Ninth Circuit provides for an adjusted rate of $172.24 per hour. Plaintiff seeks also an hourly rate of compensation of $174.57 for work performed by counsel in 2010. (Id.) Again, the Ninth Circuit provides for compensation at an hourly rate of $174.64. When the rates provided on the Ninth Circuit's website are applied, the actual amount to which Plaintiff is entitled under the EAJA totals $2,329.38 for all work performed by counsel in 2009 and 2010.*fn1

Thus, the Court will ORDER that Plaintiff be awarded $2,329.38 in EAJA fees.

3. Award of the Fees Under the Eaja Must be to Plaintiff and Not His Counsel

Plaintiff requests that the Court make the EAJA fees payable to his counsel. (Doc. 22 at 3)). Defendant opposes this request and argues that payment must be to Plaintiff and not his attorney. In support, Defendant cites the recently decided case of Astrue v. Ratliff, ___ U.S. ___, 130 S.Ct. 2521 (2010).

In Ratliff, the Supreme Court held that an award of fees under the EAJA is payable to the litigant and not his attorney and, therefore, is subject to offset for any pre-existing debt owed by the plaintiff to the United States. 130 S.Ct. at 2524. In Ratliff, the Government notified a social security claimant that it would apply EAJA fees that had been awarded to her to offset a portion of her outstanding federal debt. Id. at 2525. Ratliff, the claimant's attorney, intervened to challenge the offset on the grounds that EAJA fees belong to a litigant's attorney and, thus, could not be used to offset a litigant's federal debts. Id.

The Court disagreed. The Court held that 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A) awards fees "to a prevailing party." See Ratliff, 130 S.Ct. at 2525-27. Thus, the Court determined that an award directly to a claimant's attorney was not supported by the language of § 2412(d)(1)(A) and would frustrate the government's ability to offset federal debts owed by the claimant. For these reasons, the Court declines to direct that EAJA fees be made payable to Plaintiff's counsel.

Accordingly, Plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees (Doc. 22) under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART, as follows:

1. Plaintiff's request for attorney's fees is GRANTED as modified in the amount of $2,329.38; and

2. Plaintiff's request that the award of fees be made payable to counsel is DENIED.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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