Owens v. Colvin

Filing 29

ORDER granting 27 Plaintiff's Motion for an Award of Attorney's Fees under the EAJA in the amount of $6,150.15. This award shall be payable directly to Plaintiff and is subject to offset to satisfy any pre-existing debt that Plaintiff owes the United States pursuant to Astrue v. Ratliff, 560 U.S. 586, 594 (2010). Signed by Senior Judge James A Teilborg on 7/26/17.(EJA)

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1 WO 2 3 4 5 6 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 7 FOR THE DISTRICT OF ARIZONA 8 9 Lorrie Owens, No. CV-16-00970-PHX-JAT Plaintiff, 10 11 v. 12 Commissioner Administration, ORDER 13 of Social Security Defendant. 14 15 Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Lorrie Owens’s Motion for Attorneys’ Fees 16 pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”). (“Motion,” Doc. 27). Defendant, 17 Commissioner of Social Security Administration, has filed her Response (Doc. 28). 18 Having considered the parties’ filings, the Court now rules on the Motion. 19 I. Background 20 Alan Owens applied for Social Security disability benefits in January 2010. 21 (Doc. 24 at 1). The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) initially denied this claim, only to 22 be reversed by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Appeals Council. (Id.). The 23 ALJ denied Mr. Owens’s benefits a second time in March 2014, but he died before that 24 decision could be appealed. (Doc. 1 at 1-2). Plaintiff, Mr. Owens’s surviving spouse, 25 appealed the ALJ’s decision to this court claiming: “1) the [ALJ] did not properly 26 discredit the claimant’s subjective symptom testimony; and 2) the ALJ did not properly 27 discredit certain treating medical opinions.” (Doc. 25 at 1). 28 The Court found three of the ALJ’s six proffered reasons for discrediting 1 claimant’s reported symptoms were not supported by the evidence. (Id. at 3–5). These 2 improper reasons included: (1) that “claimant had minimal treatment” and received only 3 “routine, conservative, and non-emergency treatment”; (2) that “claimant’s treatment was 4 limited to conservative treatment and follow-up care, avoidance of caffeine and 5 prescription medications”; and (3) that “Dr. Goodell, the claimant’s neurologist 6 reported . . . that if the claimant had a low stress environment he would be able to work.” 7 (Id.). 8 Also, the Court found that the ALJ gave potentially invalid reasons for not 9 crediting the testimony of three of four medical sources. (Id. at 8–9). Furthermore, the 10 Court found that this error “call[ed] into question the ultimate conclusion” and was 11 therefore “not harmless.” (Id. at 9). 12 Based on these reasons, the Court reversed the ALJ’s decision and remanded for 13 further proceedings. (Id.). After the reversal, Plaintiff filed the current Motion requesting 14 attorneys’ fees and costs under the EAJA. (Doc. 27). Defendant’s Response states that 15 they “ha[ve] no objection to [Plaintiff’s] request and will defer to the Court’s assessment 16 of the matter.” (Doc. 28 at 1). 17 II. Legal Standard 18 The EAJA allows “a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other 19 expenses . . . incurred by that party in any civil action . . . unless the court finds that the 20 position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances 21 make an award unjust.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A) (2012). An applicant for disability 22 benefits becomes a prevailing party for the purposes of the EAJA if the denial of her 23 benefits is reversed and remanded regardless of whether disability benefits are ultimately 24 awarded. Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 300–02 (1993). 25 The “position of the United States” includes both its litigating position and the 26 “action or failure to act by the agency upon which the civil action is based.” 27 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(D). For this position to be substantially justified, it must be 28 “justified in substance or in the main–that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a -2- 1 reasonable person.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (holding that 2 substantially justified means having a reasonable basis both in law and fact). In EAJA 3 actions, the government bears the burden of proving that its position was substantially 4 justified. Gonzales v. Free Speech Coalition, 408 F.3d 613, 618 (9th Cir. 2005). 5 When analyzing the government’s position for substantial justification, the Court’s 6 inquiry should be focused on the issue that was the basis for remand and not the merits of 7 Plaintiff’s claim in its entirety or the ultimate disability determination. Flores v. Shalala, 8 49 F.3d 562, 569 (9th Cir. 2008); see also Corbin v. Apfel, 149 F.3d 1051, 1052 9 (9th Cir. 1998) (“The government’s position must be substantially justified at each stage 10 of the proceedings.” (citation and quotation marks omitted)). 11 III. Analysis 12 Defendant does not oppose Plaintiff’s request for attorneys’ fees. (Doc. 28 at 1). 13 The Court could “treat the government’s non-opposition as constituting a failure to offer 14 a basis for a finding of substantial justification and, thus, a failure to carry its burden of 15 proof.” Gwaduri v. INS, 362 F.3d 1144, 1146 (9th Cir. 2004). However, the Court should 16 exercise discretion in awarding fees under EAJA and “has an independent obligation to 17 ensure that the request is reasonable.” Keyser v. Astrue, No. 08-1268-CL, 18 2012 WL 78461, at *3 (D. Or. Jan. 10, 2012); see also Webb v. Ada Cty., 19 195 F.3d 524, 527 20 “considerable discretion” in determining the reasonableness of a fee award). Accordingly, 21 the Court reviews the record for reasonableness of Plaintiff’s request. (9th Cir. 1999) (recognizing that a district court possesses 22 A. 23 The Court agrees with both Plaintiff and Defendant that the government’s position 24 was not substantially justified. First, the Court held that the ALJ erred with her decision 25 to discredit claimant’s testimony, as three of six of findings used to reach that decision 26 were not supported by the record. (Doc. 25 at 3–5). An error is harmless if there is 27 substantial evidence supporting the ALJ’s decision and the “error does not negate the 28 validity of the ALJ’s ultimate conclusion.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 Substantial Justification -3- 1 (9th Cir. 2012). As the Court “cannot determine whether the ALJ’s ultimate conclusion 2 would be changed by more accurate consideration of the evidence,” the error committed 3 by the ALJ was not harmless. 4 Second, the Court held that the ALJ gave potentially invalid reasons for 5 discrediting the testimony of three out of four medical sources. (Doc. 25 at 9). This error 6 also calls into question the ultimate conclusion of the disability determination, and 7 therefore the Court finds that it is not harmless error. Based on these errors, the Court 8 finds that the ALJ’s determination did not have a “reasonable basis both in law and fact,” 9 and accordingly could not be substantially justified. Pierce, 487 U.S. at 565. 10 Finally, the Court can identify no special circumstances that would make an award 11 unjust. Based on these findings and Defendant’s non-objection to Plaintiff’s Motion, the 12 Court finds that Plaintiff is entitled to attorneys’ fees under the EAJA. 13 B. 14 Plaintiff requests attorneys’ fees in the amount of $6,050.15, in addition to 15 paralegal fees of $100, for a total of $6,150.15. (Doc. 27 at 1). This amount represents the 16 31.4 hours Plaintiff’s counsel has expended on her case multiplied by the hourly rate of 17 $190.28 1, in addition to two hours of paralegal time multiplied by the hourly rate of 18 $50.00. (Id.). At 31.4 hours, the total amount of hours expended by Plaintiff is within the 19 standard range awarded for Social Security cases. Costa v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 20 690 F.3d 1132, 1136 (9th Cir. 2012) (“Many district courts have noted that twenty to 21 forty hours is the range most often requested and granted in social security cases.” 22 (citations omitted)). Also, “a prevailing party that satisfies EAJA’s other requirements 23 may recover its paralegal fees from the Government at prevailing market rates.” 24 Richlin Sec. Serv. Co. v. Chertoff, 553 U.S. 571 (2008). Therefore, the Court finds the 25 amount of fees reasonable and awards them to Plaintiff in the requested amount. Fee Amount 26 1 27 28 The base hourly rate for EAJA cases is $125 per hour. The rate of $190.28 is used in Plaintiff’s fee calculation after taking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’s cost of living adjustment into consideration. Statutory Maximum Rates Under the Equal Access to Justice Act, http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/content/view.php?pk_id=0000000039 (last visited July 12, 2017). -4- 1 IV. Conclusion 2 Based on the foregoing, 3 IT IS ORDERED that Plaintiff’s Motion for an Award of Attorney’s Fees under 4 the EAJA, (Doc. 27), is GRANTED in the amount of $6,150.15. This award shall be 5 payable directly to Plaintiff and is subject to offset to satisfy any pre-existing debt that 6 Plaintiff owes the United States pursuant to Astrue v. Ratliff, 560 U.S. 586, 594 (2010). 7 Dated this 26th day of July, 2017. 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 -5-

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