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Leota v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

August 30, 2019




         On March 25, 2019, this Court granted Plaintiff Emanuel Leota's motion for summary judgment, remanding the case for further proceedings on Plaintiff's application for Social Security disability benefits. Dkt. 27. Now before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d) (the “EAJA”). Dkt. 30. Defendant Commissioner of Social Security opposes Plaintiff's motion. Dkt. 34. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7-1(b), the Court deems this matter suitable for determination without oral argument. For the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion and awards Plaintiff EAJA attorney fees in the amount of $4, 320.00.


         The EAJA provides that “a court shall award to any prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses … incurred by that party in any civil action … including proceedings for judicial review of agency action, brought by or against the United States in any court having jurisdiction of that action, 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).


         The parties agree that Plaintiff is the prevailing party in this action. See Dkt. 30 at 1-2 (noting that Court reversed and remanded case and entered judgment for Plaintiff); Dkt. 34 at 2 (stating that Plaintiff “prevailed in Court”). The Commissioner also does not challenge the reasonableness of hourly rates or number of hours Plaintiff claims. See Dkt. 30 at 4-7. Instead, the Commissioner's opposition to Plaintiff's request for fees is based on the Commissioner's argument that the government's position in this case was “substantially justified.” See, e.g., Dkt. 34 at 3-5. Alternatively, the Commissioner argues that Plaintiff's fee claim should be rejected or discounted because the circumstances of this case make an award unjust. Id. at 5-7.

         A. Substantial justification

         1. Legal standard

         The Commissioner bears the burden of proving substantial justification. Decker v. Berryhill, 856 F.3d 659, 664 (9th Cir. 2017). “To establish substantial justification, the government need not establish that it was correct or ‘justified to a high degree'-indeed, since the movant is established as a prevailing party it could never do so-but only that its position is one that ‘a reasonable person could think is correct, that is, [that the position] has a reasonable basis in law and fact.” Ibrahim v. Dep't of Homeland Security, 912 F.3d 1147, 1167 (9th Cir. 2019) (en banc) (citations omitted). “That the government lost … does not raise a presumption that its position was not substantially justified.” Id. at 1168. In the Social Security context, the Ninth Circuit has explained that the government is not substantially justified where a remand is a “foregone conclusion, ” but an award of fees may not be appropriate if the result of the case was not so certain. See Decker, 856 F.3d at 665.

         2. Procedural background

         The Commissioner's argument that the government's position was substantially justified is rooted in the following procedural history. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on January 11, 2017, at which Plaintiff's attorney told the ALJ he had outstanding requests for updated medical records. Dkt. 19 (Administrative Record (“AR”)) 180. Plaintiff's counsel asked the ALJ to keep the record open after the hearing, and the ALJ agreed, stating, “I will allow 14 days for the documents to be obtained and will not render a decision until after either the 14 days or the documents have arrived.” Id. Plaintiff's counsel did not submit additional records within 14 days of the hearing, but on May 31, 2017, he submitted over 140 pages of additional medical records, including records from Plaintiff's treating physician, Adam Trotta, M.D. AR 32-176. The next day, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 17-31. The ALJ discounted the opinion of Dr. Trotta regarding Plaintiff's functional capacity, citing two reasons: (1) the absence of treating records to substantiate Dr. Trotta's conclusions regarding Plaintiff's functional capacity, and (2) the absence of evidence of uncontrolled symptoms after January 2015. AR 25. The ALJ's decision did not mention the additional records submitted by Plaintiff's counsel the day before the decision was issued.

         Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. See AR 1-5. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request. Id. The Appeals Council noted that Plaintiff had submitted additional medical records, but stated that it “did not consider and exhibit this evidence.” AR 2.

         This Court concluded, and the Commissioner does not dispute, that the medical records submitted after the ALJ hearing were part of the administrative record that this Court was required to consider when reviewing the Commissioner's final decision for substantial evidence. Dkt. 27 at 7 (citing Brewes v .Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. 682 F.3d 1157, 1163 (9th Cir. 2012)).

         3. ...

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