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Margulis v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 19, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



         After successfully obtaining reversal of an Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision denying his application for Social Security disability benefits, Plaintiff filed an application for an award of attorney fees and costs pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”) in the amount of $10, 619. (See Doc. 32, pp. 9-10 (representing a contingency fee based on 25% of Plaintiff’s past due benefits as remuneration for 30.9 hours of attorney time and 5.0 hours of paralegal time spent representing Plaintiff, and an additional $26.34 in expenses).) On June 17, 2016, the Court ordered Defendant’s opposition, if any, to be filed by no later than June 29, 2016. (Doc. 34.) No opposition has been filed; therefore, the motion is deemed unopposed. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff’s application for EAJA fees and expenses is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed this action on December 11, 2013, seeking judicial review of a final administrative decision denying his application for Social Security disability benefits. On March 9, 2015, the Court issued an order reversing the ALJ’s decision and remanding the case for award or benefits based on the ALJ’s failure to articulate specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the medical opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician. (Doc. 21.) On March 27, 2015, Defendant filed a motion for reconsideration, contending the Court erred in considering the ALJ’s findings and by failing to follow the standard of review and improperly reweighing evidence. (Doc. 25.) On June 29, 2015, the Court denied Defendant’s motion for reconsideration, again finding the ALJ failed to provide adequate reasons for rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating physician and noting that the opinion must be credited as a matter of law. (Doc. 28, p. 6 (citing Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 593 (9th Cir. 2004); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1292 (9th Cir. 1996); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1995).

         On June 13, 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for EAJA fees and expenses, seeking (1) an interim EAJA fee award of $10, 916, representing 25% of Plaintiff’s past-due benefits under the contingency fee agreement, (2) an order that Plaintiff’s counsel reimburse Plaintiff in the amount of $ 6, 900 for EAJA fees previously paid by the Commissioner, and (3) leave to file a motion pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) motion upon calculation of benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act for work performed before the Court. (Doc. 32.) No opposition was filed. It is Plaintiff’s motion for attorney fees and expenses under the EAJA that is currently pending before the Court.


         The EAJA provides that “a court shall award to a prevailing party . . . fees and other expenses . . . incurred by that party in any civil action . . . brought by or against the United States . . . 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); see also Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 796 (2002). “It is the government’s burden to show that its position was substantially justified or that special circumstances exist to make an award unjust.” Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 1255, 1258 (9th Cir. 2001).

         A “party” under the EAJA is defined as including “an individual whose net worth did not exceed $2, 000, 000 at the time the civil action was filed[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(B)(i). The term “fees and other expenses” includes “reasonable attorney fees.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A). “The statute explicitly permits the court, in its discretion, to reduce the amount awarded to the prevailing party to the extent that the party ‘unduly and unreasonably protracted’ the final resolution of the case.” Atkins v. Apfel, 154 F.3d 986, 987 (9th Cir.1998) (citing 28 U.S.C. §§ 2412(d)(1)(C) & 2412(d)(2)(D)).

         A party who obtains a remand in a Social Security case is a prevailing party for purposes of the EAJA. Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 300-01 (1993) (“No holding of this Court has ever denied prevailing-party status . . . to a plaintiff who won a remand order pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g) . . ., which terminates the litigation with victory for the plaintiff). “An applicant for disability benefits becomes a prevailing party for the purposes of the EAJA if the denial of her benefits is reversed and remanded regardless of whether disability benefits ultimately are awarded.” Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1257.

         III. ANALYSIS

         There is no dispute Plaintiff is the prevailing party in this litigation. The Court finds Plaintiff did not unduly delay this litigation, and Plaintiffs net worth did not exceed two million dollars when this action was filed. The Court thus considers below whether the government’s actions were substantially justified.

         A. The Government’s Position was Not Substantially Justified

         Substantial justification means “justified in substance or in the main -- that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In other words, the government’s position must have a reasonable basis both in fact and in law. Id. In considering whether the position of the government is substantially justified, the position of the United States includes “both the government’s litigation position and the underlying agency action giving rise to the civil action.” Meier v Colvin, 727 F.3d 867, 870 (9th Cir. 2013).

         In the social security context, it is the ALJ’s decision that is considered the “action or failure to act” by the agency. Id. Under the substantial justification test, the court first considers the ALJ’s decision and then considers the government’s litigation position in defending that decision. Id. Where the underlying ALJ decision is not substantially justified, a court need not address whether the government’s litigation position was justified. Id. at 872 (citing Shafer v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 1067, 1071 (9th Cir. 2008) ...

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