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Prince v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 9, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         On September 11, 2017, the Court entered a Judgment reversing the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) and remanding this case for further administrative proceedings. See J. (Doc. No. 26); see also Prince v. Berryhill, No. CIV-15-933-CG, 2017 WL 3977926 (W.D. Okla. Sept. 11, 2017). Plaintiff Susan Gail Prince now moves for an award of attorney's fees in the amount of $6477.00 pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. See Pl.'s Mot. Att'y Fees (Doc. No. 27); Pl.'s Suppl. (Doc. No. 30). Defendant has objected to the Motion (Def.'s Obj. (Doc. No. 28)), and Plaintiff has replied (Pl.'s Reply (Doc. No. 29)).

         I. Attorney Fee Awards Under the EAJA

         Section 2412(d) of the EAJA provides that a prevailing party other than the United States shall be awarded reasonable fees in a civil 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), (d)(2)(A). The “position of the United States” includes not only the position taken by the government in the present civil action but also “the action or failure to act by the agency upon which the civil action is based.” Id. § 2412(d)(2)(D). “[T]he required ‘not substantially justified' allegation imposes no proof burden on the fee applicant”; “the Government is aware, from the moment a fee application is filed, that to defeat the application on the merits, it will have to prove its position ‘was substantially justified.'” Scarborough v. Principi, 541 U.S. 401, 403 (2004); accord Hackett v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 1166, 1169 (10th Cir. 2007). To make this showing, the government must prove that its case “had a reasonable basis in law and in fact.” Hadden v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 1266, 1267 (10th Cir. 1988). The term “substantially justified” has been defined as “‘justified in substance or in the main-that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.'” Id. (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988)); see also 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(B) (prescribing that whether the government's position was substantially justified is determined on the basis of the record before the court, including the record of the agency's action or failure to act upon which the civil action was based).

         II. Whether Plaintiff Is the Prevailing Party

         As noted above, the Court previously reversed the Commissioner's decision denying Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1383f. Having obtained reversal and remand under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff is considered the “prevailing party” for purposes of the EAJA. See J. at 1; 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(B); Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 300-01 (1993).

         III. Whether the Government Has Shown Its Position Was Substantially Justified

         In the administrative proceedings below, the ALJ committed multiple errors. First, the ALJ failed to address Plaintiff's documented vision problems but found that Plaintiff was able to perform past relevant work that requires reading and frequent near visual acuity and, alternatively, two jobs that require frequent near visual acuity. See Prince, 2017 WL 3977926, at *2-3. Next, the ALJ's decision failed to reflect that he properly considered all of the evidence in the record regarding Plaintiff's back and leg pain and did not properly resolve the evidentiary inconsistency between certain records. See Id. at *3-5. Relatedly, the ALJ failed to adequately explain his assessment that Plaintiff was able to stand and/or walk six hours out of an eight-hour workday in light of contradictory medical records and postdecision evidence that was accepted into record by the SSA Appeals Council. See Id. at *5-6.

         Reversal therefore was required based upon a lack of substantial evidence to uphold the ALJ's residual functional capacity determination. See Id. at *6-7. The Court declined to address other propositions of error raised by Plaintiff. See Id. at *6 n.9, *7 (quoting Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1299 (10th Cir. 2003).

         Defendant objects to any award of fees, arguing that the government's position was substantially justified with respect to both denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits and defending that denial in this Court. See Def.'s Obj. at 2-7; see also Gutierrez v. Sullivan, 953 F.2d 579, 585 (10th Cir. 1992) (“We consider the reasonableness of the position the Secretary took both in the administrative proceedings and in the civil action Plaintiff commenced to obtain benefits.”). While thorough, the ALJ's assessment of the evidence reflected legal errors and resulted in a residual functional capacity assessment that lacked substantial evidence and did not comport with Tenth Circuit authority in multiple respects. See Prince, 2017 WL 2017 WL 3977926, at *2-6. Defendant now repeats the arguments previously made in support of affirmance but does not show “a reasonable basis in law and in fact” for the ALJ's denial of benefits. Hadden, 851 F.2d at 1267; see Def.'s Obj. at 2-7; Gutierrez, 953 F.2d at 584-86 (finding that district court abused its discretion in denying fees to plaintiff where the ALJ's findings were unreasonable based on the record before the ALJ).

         Defendant implies that fees should not be awarded because Defendant raised reasonable arguments in this Court as to why the ALJ's errors were harmless. See Def.'s Obj. at 7. “EAJA fees generally should be awarded where the government's underlying action was unreasonable even if the government advanced a reasonable litigation position.” Hackett, 475 F.3d at 1174 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Tenth Circuit has recognized an exception to this rule, however, “when the Commissioner reasonably (even if unsuccessfully) argues in litigation that the ALJ's errors were harmless.” Groberg v. Astrue, 505 F. App'x 763, 765 (10th Cir. 2012). Defendant, however, conceded no error in the ALJ's decision and did not argue that any relevant errors in the ALJ's assessment should be overlooked as harmless. See Def.'s Br. (Doc. No. 24) at 5-15. Rather, Defendant contended consistently that the ALJ's consideration of the evidence was proper and all relevant findings in the decision were entirely supported by substantial evidence. See Id. at 5-7, 9-15. Defendant thus has not shown that her litigation position “cured unreasonable agency action.” Groberg, 505 F. App'x at 768 (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Defendant has not shown that this case is “exceptional” or that the United States' position before the SSA and this Court was substantially justified. Id. at 765, 768; see 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), (B), (d)(2)(D).

         IV. Whether Plaintiff's Fee Request Is Reasonable

         The Court is aware of no special circumstances that would make an award of attorney's fees unjust. See 28 U.S.C. ยง 2412(d)(1)(A). Thus, the only remaining issue is the reasonableness of ...

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