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Hill v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

December 18, 2019

DAVID PAUL HILL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Troy L. NunleyJ11 United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff David Paul Hill's (“Plaintiff) Motion for Attorney's Fees, Costs, and Expenses pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). (ECF No. 33.) Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant”) filed an opposition to the Motion, (ECF No. 34), and Plaintiff submitted a reply (ECF No. 35.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Plaintiffs Motion and awards Plaintiff $21, 988.53 in attorney's fees and $232.45 in costs and expenses.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed an action on July 18, 2016, seeking judicial review of a final administrative decision denying his application for Social Security disability benefits. (ECF No. 1.) On April 26, 2018, the Court issued an order determining the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in evaluating the medical record - specifically regarding the inclusion of the opinion of Plaintiff s medical providers - and remanded the matter for further administrative hearings. (ECF No. 27.)

         On July 16, 2018, Plaintiff filed this Motion, seeking an award of attorney's fees, costs, and expenses pursuant to the EAJA in the amount of $20, 226.31. (ECF No. 33.) Defendant filed an opposition on July 21, 2018, arguing Plaintiff is not entitled to an award, and in the alternative, the award requested is unreasonable. (ECF No. 34 at 1.) Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff submitted a reply with modifications to the amount requested. (ECF No. 35.)

         II. Standard of Law

         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). The term “fees and other expenses” includes “reasonable attorney fees.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A). “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 eligible to receive an award of attorney's fees under the EAJA must be the prevailing party who received a final judgment in the civil action. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(H). 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). 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). “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.

         The party seeking the award of EAJA fees has the burden of proof that fees requested are reasonable. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 434 (1983); see also Atkins v. Apfel, 154 F.3d 986 (9th Cir. 1998). As a result, “[t]he fee applicant bears the burden of documenting the appropriate hours expended in the litigation, and must submit evidence in support of those hours worked.” Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392, 1397 (9th Cir. 1992); see also 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(B) (“A party seeking an award of fees and other expenses shall . . . submit to the court an application for fees and other expenses which shows . . . the amount sought, including an itemized statement from any attorney . . . stating the actual time expended”). The court has an independent duty to review the evidence to determine the reasonableness of the hours requested in each case. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 436-47.

         “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, 154 F.3d at 987 (citing 28 U.S.C. §§ 2412(d)(1)(C) & 2412(d)(2)(D)). Where documentation of the expended time is inadequate, the court may reduce the requested award. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 436-47. Further, “hours that were not ‘reasonably expended'” should be excluded from an award, including “hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary.” Id. at 434. A determination of the number of hours reasonably expended is within the Court's discretion. Cunningham v. County of Los Angeles, 879 F.2d 481, 484-85 (9th Cir. 1988).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff seeks attorney's fees in the amount of $22, 585.72 and costs and expenses in the amount of $232.45.[1](ECF No. 35 at 1.) Plaintiff has assigned any award to his attorney, Barbara Marie Rizzo (“Plaintiffs Counsel”), and requests the award be paid directly to Plaintiffs Counsel. (ECF No. 33 at 2.) Plaintiff contends he is entitled to the requested award as the prevailing party in this action and because Defendant's position at the administrative level and in District Court was not substantially justified. (ECF No. 33 at 3, 7.) Defendant argues Plaintiff is not entitled to attorney's fees and costs under the EAJA because Defendant's position was substantially justified. (ECF No. 34 at 4-8.) Alternatively, Defendant argues that if the Court finds EAJA fees are warranted, the amount Plaintiff requests is not reasonable. (ECF No. 34 at 8.) Plaintiffs reply addresses Defendant's various arguments. (ECF No. 35.)

         The Court will first evaluate whether Defendant's position was substantially justified and determine if Plaintiff is entitled to an award. Then, the Court will address the reasonableness of the requested award and the assignment of any fees awarded.

         A. Defendant's Position was not Substantially Justified

         The EAJA provides that a prevailing party other than the United States should be awarded 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). “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. Here, Plaintiff is an individual whose net worth did not exceed two million dollars at the time this action was filed. (See ECF No. 33 at 3.) On April 26, 2018, the Court ordered Plaintiffs case be remanded to the SSA for additional administrative proceedings. (See ECF No. 27.) Consequently, Plaintiff is considered a prevailing party for the purposes of the instant motion.

         The burden of proof that the position was substantially justified rests on the government. See Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988); Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1258 (9th Cir. 2001). The question of whether the position of the government is substantially justified 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). A position is “substantially justified” if it has a reasonable basis in law and fact. Pierce, 487 U.S. at 565-66; United States v. Marolf, 277 F.3d 1156, 1160 (9th Cir. 2002). Substantially justified has been interpreted to mean “justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person” and “more than merely undeserving of sanctions for frivolousness.” Pierce, 487 U.S. at 565; see also Marolf, 277 F.3d at 1161.

         For the purposes of this motion, the ALJ's decision is treated as the underlying agency action. See Meier, 727 F.3d at 870. The Court previously found that the ALJ committed legal error by failing to provide “clear and convincing” reasons supported by substantial evidence for rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff s treating physician and physician's assistant. (ECF No. 27 at 3.) Therefore, the Court remanded the case back to the agency for further proceedings. (ECF No. 27 at 6.) Defendant argues Plaintiff is not entitled to EAJA fees merely because he prevailed in court when the Court remanded the matter for additional administrative proceedings. (ECF No. 34 at 2.) Defendant further asserts that substantial justification exists for the underlying ALJ decision and the government's litigation position. (ECF No. 34 at 4-5.) Having reviewed the pleadings and the arguments made by the parties, the Court finds Defendant's position in the underlying agency action was not substantially justified.

         At the outset, the Court will address and dismiss one of the arguments Defendant alludes to. Defendant argues that of the six issues Plaintiff raised, Plaintiff prevailed on only one, and therefore the totality of the ruling demonstrates the reasonableness of Defendant's position. (ECF No. 34 at 5.) This fact in itself is irrelevant to the instant motion. For the purposes of the EAJA, the Court must decide whether Defendant's position was substantially justified based upon the issue on which the case was overturned, not every issue Plaintiff raised. See Hardisty v. Astrue, 592 F.3d 1072, 1078 (9th Cir. 2010).

         Next, the Court does agree that the mere fact that a court reversed and remanded a case for further proceedings “does not raise a presumption that [the government's] position was not substantially justified.” Kali v. Bowen,854 F.2d 329, 335 (9th Cir. 1988). However, when the government violates its own regulations, fails to acknowledge settled circuit case law, or fails to adequately develop the record, its position is not substantially justified. See Gutierrez, 274 F.3d ...


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