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Campbell v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 17, 2019

DANIELLA LYNNE CAMPBELL obo KDC, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          KENDALL J. NEWMAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff commenced this social security action on November 29, 2017, and Defendant filed an answer on June 25, 2018. (ECF Nos. 1, 9.) On March 7, 2019, Defendant filed a stipulation to remand to the agency for further administrative proceedings, which the court ordered on March 11. (ECF Nos. 19, 20.)

         Thereafter, Plaintiff filed the instant motion for attorneys' fees. (ECF No. 22.) Defendant opposes, contending that “special circumstances make an award of fees unjust, ” and that the fee request is unreasonable. (ECF No. 24.)

         After carefully considering the parties' briefing, the court's record, and the applicable law, the Court GRANTS IN PART Plaintiff's motion for EAJA fees.

         Legal Standard

         The Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”) provides for an award of fees, other expenses, and costs to a prevailing plaintiff in an action for judicial review of the Social Security Administration's actions “unless 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 sub. (B) (the prevailing, eligible party “shall also allege that the position of the United States was not substantially justified.”). The Supreme Court has defined “substantial justification” as:

justified in substance or in the main - that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person. [This standard] is no different from the “reasonable basis in both law and fact” formulation adopted by the Ninth Circuit and the vast majority of other Courts of Appeals that have addressed this issue.

Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). A position does not have to be correct to be substantially justified; rather, the standard is satisfied if there is a “genuine dispute.” Id. at 565 and 566 n.2; see also Lewis v. Barnhart, 281 F.3d 1081, 1083 (9th Cir. 2002). In determining the reasonableness of the government's position under the ‘totality of the circumstances' test, the district court reviews both the underlying governmental action being defended in the litigation and the positions taken by the government in the litigation itself. § 2412(d)(1)(B); Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 1255, 1259 (9th Cir. 2001). The government has the burden of demonstrating that its position was substantially justified, but its failure to prevail does not raise a presumption that its position was not substantially justified. Kali v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 329, 332 (9th Cir. 1988).

         As to the amount to award, the EAJA directs that any fee must be reasonable. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A). In determining whether a fee is reasonable, the district court considers the reasonable hourly rate, the hours expended, and the results obtained. See Commissioner, INS v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 163 (1990); Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983); Atkins v. Apfel, 154 F.3d 986, 988 (9th Cir. 1998). The applicant must present “an itemized statement from any attorney or expert witness representing or appearing in behalf of the party stating the actual time expended and the rate at which fees and other expenses were computed.” § 2412(d)(1)(B). An increase in the statutory rate of $125 may be justified to account for increases in the cost of living. See Sorenson v. Mink, 239 F.3d 1140, 1148-49 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Thangaraja v. Gonzales, 428 F.3d 870, 876-77 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that the cost of living adjustment to the statutory cap is computed by multiplying the statutory cap by the consumer price index for urban consumers for the year in which the fees were earned, then dividing by the consumer price index figure on the date that the cap was imposed by Congress); Ninth Circuit Rule 39-1.6 and Notice re: EAJA rates (available at http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/content/view.php?pkid=0000000039).

         EAJA fee applications are due “within thirty days of final judgment, ” which is “a judgment that is final and not appealable . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(G).

         The district court may, in its discretion, “reduce the amount to be awarded” or “deny an award, to the extent that the prevailing party during the course of the proceedings engaged in conduct which unduly and unreasonably protracted the final resolution of the matter in controversy.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(C); Outdoor Sys., Inc. v. City of Mesa, 997 F.2d 604, 619 (9th Cir.1993) (Under Hensley, a district court may “disallow any fees for time spent litigating the case after the last benefit won from the Defendant.”).

         Parties' Arguments

         Plaintiff asserts she was the prevailing party, having obtained a remand for further proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 300-02 (1993). Plaintiff also asserts that Defendant's position was not substantially justified, given that Defendant voluntarily stipulated to a remand based on the ALJ's failure to comply with Acquiescence Ruling 04-01(9). (See ECF No. 22.)

         Defendant does not dispute Plaintiff's claims regarding her prevailing party status and the lack of substantial justification. Instead, Defendant contends that special circumstances make an award of EAJA fees unjust. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). Defendant notes that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment was late by almost six months due to counsel's lack of diligence, that the Court imposed monetary sanctions on Plaintiff for failing to respond to an ...


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