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Alexander K. Louis v. Michael Astrue

December 21, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sandra M. Snyder United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff moves the Court to grant attorneys' fees of $8783.75 under the Equal Access to Justice Act (28 U.S.C. § 2412 (d)) ("EAJA"). The Government objects to Plaintiff's fee request, contending that its position in the litigation was substantially justified and that the requested amounts are unreasonable. Having reviewed the motion and its supporting documentation, as well as the case file, this Court orders the payment of fees totaling $7041.17.

I. Legal and Factual Background

On May 23, 2007, Plaintiff applied for disability benefits based on a 1989 head injury and mental illness. Following a hearing, Administrative Law Judge William C. Thompson, Jr., denied his application. The Appeals Council denied review.

On March 30, 2010, Plaintiff appealed the Commissioner's decision to this Court. On August 12, 2011, the Court reversed the Commissioner's determination and remanded for payment of benefits. In particular, the Court rejected the ALJ's credibility findings, which were based on an unsupported assumption that Plaintiff lied about abusing alcohol, and the ALJ's reliance on the opinion of an agency physician that inexplicably ignored Plaintiff's twenty-year history of psychiatric illness, multiple hospitalizations, hallucinations and delusions, and response to anti-psychotic drugs, and concluded that Plaintiff had nothing more an a mild affective disorder.

On August 23, 2011, the Commissioner moved for reconsideration, accusing the Court of making independent findings about the medical evidence and arguing that the Court exceeded its jurisdiction in determining that Plaintiff's impairment satisfied the requirements of 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App.1, § 12.03. The Court denied the motion, repeating its rejection of the Commissioner's claim that the medical evidence was ambiguous and reminding Commissioner of precedent holding that when the administrative record is fully developed and further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose, the Court has the discretion to simply reverse and remand for the payment of benefits.

On December 6, 2011, Plaintiff filed a motion for attorneys' fees under the EAJA totaling $8496.53. On December 9, 2011, Plaintiff filed his reply brief as well as the supplementary declaration of Plaintiff's attorney, Harvey P. Sackett, seeking to add 1.6 additional hours ($297.22) to the billing for time spent preparing the reply brief in this motion. Thus, Plaintiff's EAJA fee request totals $8783.75.

II. Substantial Justification

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.

A prevailing party under the EAJA is one who has gained by judgment or consent decree a material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties. Perez-Arellano v. Smith, 279 F.3d 791, 794 (9th Cir. 2002). The parties do not disagree that Plaintiff is a prevailing party for purposes of the EAJA. The Commissioner opposes Plaintiff's fee request arguing that, because the Commissioner's position in the litigation was substantially justified, Plaintiff is not entitled to receive attorneys' fees pursuant to EAJA.

The government carries the burden of proving substantial justification by showing that its position advanced "a novel but credible extension or interpretation of the law." Hoang Ha v. Schweiker, 707 F.2d 1104, 1106 (9th Cir. 1983). Whether a litigation position was substantially justified requires a position with a reasonable basis in both law and fact. Timms v. United States, 742 F.2d 489, 492 (9th Cir. 1984). To determine whether the government's litigation position was substantially justified in the Ninth Circuit, a court must consider the totality of the circumstances present prior to and during the litigation. Id. "In making a determination of substantial justification, the court must consider the reasonableness of both 'the underlying government action at issue' and the position asserted by the government 'in defending the validity of the action in court.'" Bay Area Peace Navy v. United States, 914 F.2d 1224, 1227 (9th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted). If the underlying government action was not substantially justified, the Court need not determine whether the litigation position was substantially justified. Andrew v. Bowen, 837 F.2d 875, 880 (9th Cir. 1988).

A court's holding that an administrative determination was not supported by substantial evidence is a strong indication that the government's position was not substantially justified. Thangaraja v. Gonzales, 428 F.3d 870, 874 (9th Cir. 2005). "Indeed, it will be only a 'decidedly unusual case in which there is substantial justification under the EAJA even though the agency's decision was reversed as lacking in reasonable, substantial and probative evidence in the record.'" Id., quoting Al-Harbi v. Immigration & Naturalization Service, 284 F.3d 1080, 1084 (9th Cir. 2002).

The Commissioner's substantial justification claim echoes his litigation position that the ALJ was justified in rejecting evidence of Plaintiff's psychiatric treatment and the opinion of the examining physician in favor of the limited and inconsistent determination of the agency's nontreating, nonexamining physician, Dr. Aquino-Caro. He continues to claim that the agency's rules are sufficiently flexible to permit the ALJ to favor the opinion of a non-examining source over an examining source: "[O]pinions from State agency medical and psychological consultants and other program physicians and psychologists may be entitled to greater weight than the opinions of treating or examining sources." Doc. 29 at 4, quoting SSR 96-6p (emphasis added by Commissioner). The Commissioner quotes the ruling out of context. The portion from which the quotation is lifted supports Plaintiff's position, not that of the Commissioner:

Paragraphs 404.1527(f) and 416.927(f) provide that the rules for considering medical and other opinions of treating sources and other sources in paragraphs (a) through (e) also apply when we consider the medical opinions of nonexamining sources, including state agency medical and psychological consultants and other program physicians and psychologists. The regulations provide progressively more rigorous tests for weighing opinions as the ties between the source of the opinion and the individual become weaker. For example, the opinions of physicians or psychologists who do not have a treatment relationship with the individual are ...

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