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Ontiveros-Yarbrough v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 25, 2017

MICHAEL ONTIVEROS-YARBROUGH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES AND EXPENSES PURSUANT TO THE EQUAL ACCESS TO JUSTICE ACT (DOC. 28)

          Sheila K. Oberto. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         After successfully obtaining reversal of an Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision denying his application for Social Security disability benefits and following the Court's ruling denying Defendant's motion to alter or amend judgment, 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 $6, 017.63. (See Doc. 28 at 6 (seeking an award of $6, 011.59 in total fees (31.35 hours in attorney time) and $6.04 in costs).)

         On March 30, 2017, Defendant filed an opposition asserting that Plaintiff is not entitled to EAJA fees and costs because Defendant's position was “substantially justified.” (Doc. 31.) On April 14, 2017, Plaintiff filed a reply brief, which requested a supplemental EAJA award of $674.38 for 3.5 hours spent on the reply brief, for a revised total award of $ 6, 692.01. (Doc. 32.)

         For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's application for EAJA fees and expenses is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed this action on May 26, 2015, seeking judicial review of a final administrative decision denying his application for Social Security disability benefits. On August 2, 2016, 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 germane reasons for rejecting lay witnesses' testimony. (Doc. 22.) On August 30, 2016, Defendant filed a motion to alter or amend judgment, contending that the Court committed clear error when it found that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence due to the ALJ's improper rejection of the lay testimony of Plaintiff's mother and the ALJ's deficient analysis of the lay testimony of Plaintiff's uncle. (Doc. 24.) On November 30, 2016, the Court denied Defendant's motion for reconsideration, again finding that the ALJ failed to address what weight, if any, he accorded Plaintiff's uncle's testimony.[1] (Doc. 27 at 5 (citing Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 511 (9th Cir. 2001).)

         On February 28, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion for EAJA fees and expenses, seeking a total award of $6, 017.63. (See Doc. 28 at 6 (seeking an award of $6, 011.59 in total fees (31.35 hours in attorney time) and $6.04 in costs); see also Doc. 32 (seeking an additional award of $674.38 for 3.5 attorney hours spent on the reply brief, for a revised total award of $6, 692.01).) Defendant filed an opposition asserting Plaintiff is not entitled to EAJA fees and costs because Defendant's “findings were substantially justified.” (Doc. 31 at 2.) It is Plaintiff's motion for attorney fees and expenses under the EAJA that is currently pending before the Court.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         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. Moreover, the Court finds Plaintiff did not unduly delay this litigation, and Plaintiff's net worth did not exceed two million dollars when this action was filed. The Court thus considers below whether Defendant's actions were substantially justified.

         A. The Government's Position was Not ...


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