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Clark v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 5, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on plaintiff’s fully briefed 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 her application for Supplemental Security Income under Title II of the Social Security Act. On March 9, 2016, 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, reversed the decision of the Commissioner and remanded this action for further proceedings.[2] (Dkt. No. 19.)

         On June 6, 2016, plaintiff filed this motion for attorney’s fees. (Dkt. No. 22.) Plaintiff’s motion seeks an award of $11, 636.92 in attorney’s fees. On July 6, 2016, defendant filed an opposition to plaintiff’s motion. (Dkt. No. 24.)

         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.

         Here, the court finds that plaintiff is the prevailing party, that plaintiff did not unduly delay this litigation, and that her net worth did not exceed two million dollars when this action was filed. (Dkt. No. 3.) Defendant argues that the government’s position was substantially justified, citing Campbell v. Covlin, 736 F.3d 867 (9th Cir. 2013). Campbell, however, was “one of the ‘unusual’ cases where attorneys’ fees should not be awarded under the EAJA, ” because the ALJ was tasked with “extrapolating from medical records to make a decision about a past condition, ” as opposed to examining current medical records. Id. at 869. Here, this action is not one of those unusual cases.

         In this regard, in granting plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, the court found that the ALJ gave a “vague and conclusory” summation of the treatment of three medical opinions, gave an incorrect and insufficient reason for “set[ting] aside” one of those opinions, and rejected another opinion as simply “too restrictive for the objective findings in the record.” (Dkt. No. 19 at 4, 7 & 9.) Such actions clearly constituted error. See Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012-13 (9th Cir. 2014) (“an ALJ errs when he rejects a medical opinion or assigns it little weight while doing nothing more than ignoring it, asserting without explanation that another medical opinion is more persuasive, or criticizing it with boilerplate language that fails to offer a substantive basis for his conclusion.”); Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008) (“The ALJ must consider all medical opinion evidence.”).

         Moreover, the ALJ also erred by rejecting “plaintiff’s testimony by stating simply that although plaintiff’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms plaintiff’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of those symptoms [were] not credible to the extent they [were] inconsistent with the ALJ’s residual functional capacity assessment.” (Dkt. No. 19 at 12.) Such an action also clearly constituted error. See Valentine v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 693 (9th Cir. 2009) (“The ALJ must specifically identify what testimony is credible and what testimony undermines the claimant’s complaints.”).

         Accordingly, the court finds that the position of the government was not substantially justified. See Martin v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 598 Fed.Appx. 485, 486 (9th Cir. 2015) (“Because the ALJ failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the examining physician’s opinion and the RFC failed to incorporate this physician’s four-hour standing and walking limitation, the ALJ’s decision was not substantially justified.”)[3]; Meier v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 867, 870 (9th Cir. 2013) (position of the government “includes both the government’s litigation position and the underlying agency action giving rise to the civil action.”); Shafer v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 1067, 1069-72 (9th Cir. 2008) (reversing the district court’s denial of EAJA fees where the ALJ erred in rejecting, without explanation, a non-examining doctor’s opinion, in contravention of governing regulations requiring ALJ to evaluate every medical opinion received); Thangaraja v. Gonzales, 428 F.3d 870, 874 (9th Cir. 2005) (“Our holding that the agency’s decision . . . was unsupported by substantial evidence is . . . a strong indication that the position of the United States . . . was not substantially justified”).

         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.[4] 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 omitted)). The district court must consider “‘the relationship between the amount of the fee awarded and the results obtained.’” Id. at 989 (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437).

         Here, after drafting a thorough motion for summary judgment, and opposition to defendant’s motion for summary judgment, plaintiff successfully obtained a new hearing. In this regard, after carefully reviewing the record and the pending motion, the court finds the claimed 75.25 hours of attorney and paralegal time to be a reasonable amount of time to have expended on this matter and declines to conduct a line-by-line analysis of counsel’s billing entries. See, e.g., Stewart v. Sullivan, 810 F.Supp. 1102, 1107 (D. Haw. 1993); Knowles v. Colvin, Case No. 1:14-cv-1657-SKO, 2016 WL 3407594, at *3 (E.D. Cal. June 20, 2016); Duran v. Colvin, No. 2:11-cv-2978 DAD, 2013 WL 5673415, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Oct. 17, 2013); Vallejo v. Astrue, No. 2:09-cv-03088 KJN, 2011 WL 4383636, at *4 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 20, 2011); Destefano v. Astrue, No. 05-CV-3534, 2008 WL 623197, *4 (E.D. N.Y. Mar. 4, 2008).

         Moreover, although plaintiff’s counsel expended 75.25 hours of time on this action, plaintiff is only seeking compensation for 68.05 hours of time, which includes the amount of time plaintiff expended on the motion for attorney’s fees. (Dkt. No. 23-1.) That is not an unreasonable amount of time when compared to the time devoted to similar tasks by counsel in like social security appeals coming before this court. See Stamper v. Colvin, No. 2:12-cv-0192 AC, 2013 WL 6839691, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 23, 2013) (finding 51 hours to be a reasonable amount of time); Boulanger v. Astrue, No. CIV S-07-0849 DAD, 2011 WL 4971890, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Oct. 19, 2011) (finding 58 hours to be a reasonable amount of time); Watkins v. Astrue, No. CIV S-06-1895 DAD, 2011 WL 4889190, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Oct. 13, 2011) (finding 62 hours to be a reasonable amount of time); Vallejo v. Astrue, No. 2:09-cv-03088 KJN, 2011 WL 4383636, at *5 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 20, 2011) (finding 62.1 hours to be a reasonable amount of time); see also Costa v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 690 F.3d 1132, 1137 (9th Cir. 2012) (“District courts may not apply de facto caps limiting the number of hours attorneys can reasonably expend on ‘routine’ social security cases.”). See generally Costa, 690 F.3d at 1136 (“we question the usefulness of reviewing the amount of time spent in other cases to decide how much time an ...

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