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Price v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 29, 2018

TAMMY LYNN PRICE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

         This matter is before the court on plaintiff's unopposed motion for attorney's fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”).[1]

         Plaintiff brought this action seeking judicial review of a final administrative decision denying plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. On August 31, 2017, following the filing of a motion for summary judgment by plaintiff and a cross-motion for summary judgment by defendant, the court granted plaintiff's motion in part, reversed the decision of the Commissioner, and remanded this action for further proceedings. (ECF No. 21.) //// On November 28, 2017, plaintiff filed the pending motion for attorney's fees. (ECF No. 23.) Defendant has not filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion.

         DEBORAH BARNES, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         STANDARDS

         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.

         ANALYSIS

         Here, the court finds that plaintiff is the prevailing party, that plaintiff did not unduly delay this litigation, and that plaintiff's net worth did not exceed two million dollars when this action was filed. (ECF No. 2.) Moreover, the court finds that the position of the United States was not substantially justified.

         A. Substantial Justification

         “Substantial justification means ‘justified in substance or in the main-that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.'” Tobeler v. Colvin, 749 F.3d 830, 832 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Meier v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 867, 870 (9th Cir. 2013)). “Put differently, the government's position must have a ‘reasonable basis both in law and fact.'” Meier, 727 F.3d at 870 (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988)). “‘[T]he position of the United States includes both the government's litigation position and the underlying agency action.'” Campbell v. Astrue, 736 F.3d 867, 868 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting Meier, 727 F.3d at 870); see also Shafer v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 1067, 1071 (9th Cir. 2008) (“the relevant question is whether the government's decision to defend on appeal the procedural errors committed by the ALJ was substantially justified”). “In determining whether a party is eligible for fees under EAJA, the district court must determine whether the government's position regarding the specific issue on which the district court based its remand was ‘substantially justified'-not whether the ALJ would ultimately deny disability benefits.” Gardner v. Berryhill, 856 F.3d 652, 656 (9th Cir. 2017).

         As articulated in the August 31, 2017 order, the Administrative Law Judge erred at step two of the sequential evaluation by finding that plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome and mental impairments were non-severe. The ALJ also erred by failing to offer specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the opinion of an examining physician. (ECF No. 21.) Moreover, the government has failed to argue that its position was substantially justified. Accordingly, the court cannot find that the government's position had a reasonable basis in law and fact.

         B. Plaintiff's Fee Request

         The EAJA expressly provides for an award of “reasonable” attorney fees. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)A). Under the EAJA, hourly rates for attorney fees have been capped at $125.00 since 1996, but district courts are permitted to adjust the rate to compensate for an increase in the cost of living.[2]See 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A); Sorenson v. Mink, 239 F.3d 1140, 1147-49 (9th Cir. 2001); Atkins v. Apfel, 154 F.3d 986, 987 (9th Cir. 1998). Determining a reasonable fee “‘requires more inquiry by a district court than finding the product of reasonable hours times a reasonable rate.'” Atkins, 154 F.3d at 988 (quoting Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983) (internal citations ...


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