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Shane A. Costa v. Commissioner of Social

August 24, 2012

SHANE A. COSTA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Oregon Dennis James Hubel, Magistrate Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 3:09-cv-06048-HU

Per curiam.

FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Argued and Submitted July 13, 2012-Portland, Oregon

Before: Betty B. Fletcher and Harry Pregerson, Circuit Judges, and Consuelo B. Marshall, District Judge.*fn1

Per Curiam Opinion

OPINION

The Social Security Administration denied Shane Costa's application for social security disability benefits. Costa sought review of that decision in the Oregon district court. The federal magistrate judge who presided over Costa's action deter- mined that the agency's decision improperly disregarded the opinions of an examining psychologist and remanded Costa's case to the agency. Costa sought reasonable attorney's fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). The magistrate judge granted the request in part but determined that the 60.5 hours Costa's attorneys spent working on the case were excessive. Applying what amounts to an informal rule limiting fee awards in social security cases, he reduced the number of hours compensated by nearly one-third, to 41.1 hours. We hold that it is improper for district courts to apply a de facto cap on the number of hours for which attorneys may be compensated under the EAJA in a "routine"*fn2 case challenging the denial of social security benefits. Rather individualized consideration must be given to each case.

I

Shane Costa applied for disability benefits alleging that he suffered from bi-polar disorder, an eating disorder, spinal pain, agoraphobia, and anxiety. The state disability determination agency denied Costa's application and his request for reconsideration. An administrative law judge heard Costa's appeal and issued a decision finding him not disabled. Costa sought review in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon. The parties consented to entry of final judgment by a United States Magistrate Judge.

The magistrate judge reversed the ALJ's decision finding Costa not disabled and remanded to the agency for further proceedings. The magistrate judge's order includes an exhaustive description of the medical evidence in the record and explains that the agency improperly disregarded the opinions of an examining psychologist. The merits of the magistrate judge's order are not at issue in this appeal.

Costa sought attorney's fees under the EAJA. The magistrate judge reduced the total time awarded for counsel's work on Costa's opening memorandum to the court from 25 hours to 12 hours. In doing so, he explained that "the opening memorandum was only seventeen pages long" and "the issues in the case were not novel or unusually complex." As a result he concluded that "25 hours is unreasonable." He did not explain how he determined that 12 hours was a reasonable amount of time to have spent on the opening memorandum.

Similarly, the magistrate judge reduced the hours requested for preparation of the supplemental and reply memoranda. Costa requested a total of 5.1 hours for preparation of his supplemental memorandum. The magistrate judge said that this memorandum was "just over six pages, with only one-half of one page devoted to argument." The magistrate judge's order indicates that he felt some of the work billed by Costa's attorneys duplicated work previously performed. The magistrate judge also declined to compensate Costa's attorneys for 1.4 hours of work that he deemed clerical.

The magistrate judge's order places substantial weight on a published order by Judge Mosman of the District of Oregon. The magistrate judge quoted Judge Mosman's order, which states that there is "some consensus . . . that 20-40 hours is a reasonable amount of time to spend on a social security case that does not present particular difficulty." Harden v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 497 F. Supp. 2d 1214, 1215 (D. Or. 2007). Again quoting Harden, he wrote, "this range provides an accurate framework for measuring whether the amount of time counsel spent is reasonable." Id. at 1216. The magistrate judge ...


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