Alvarez v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

Filing 41

ORDER granting 34 Motion for Attorney Fees. See document for complete details. Signed by Judge Douglas L Rayes on 11/18/2021. (RMV)

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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 Diana Yvonne Alvarez, Plaintiff, 10 11 ORDER v. 12 No. CV-20-00264-PHX-DLR Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 13 14 Defendant. 15 16 Before the Court is Plaintiff’s motion for attorney fees as authorized by the Equal 17 Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), which is fully briefed. (Docs. 34, 35, 36, 40.) Plaintiff’s 18 motion is granted, as explained below. 19 Pursuant to the EAJA, the Court shall award fees and costs to the prevailing party 20 in a Social Security Appeal unless the position of the United States was substantially 21 justified, or special circumstances make an award unjust. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). The 22 plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the fees sought are reasonable. Crawford v. 23 Astrue, 586 F.3d 1142, 1148 (9th Cir. 2009). Where fees are not shown to be reasonable 24 or “documentation of hours is inadequate, the district court may reduce the award.” 25 Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. at 424, 433 (1983). 26 Plaintiff seeks $9,702.57 for 46.7 hours of work, a rate just over $200 per hour. 27 (Doc. 35-3; Doc 40 at 13.) It is undisputed that Plaintiff is entitled to fees and costs under 28 the EAJA (Doc. 35-3 at 1; Doc. 36 at 1), but the Commissioner disputes the reasonableness 1 of Plaintiff’s proposed fee and whether Plaintiff or Plaintiff’s counsel should receive the 2 award (Doc. 36 at 1). 3 The Commissioner marshals six arguments against the reasonableness of the 4 requested fee. First, the Commissioner argues that Plaintiff drafted an unreasonably 5 lengthy and detailed complaint—taking 5.3 hours—and instead reasonably should have 6 expended 3 hours. (Doc. 36 at 8.) To be sure, the complaint is lengthier and more involved 7 than the usual complaints filed in Social Security cases. This Court, however, recognizes 8 that more-developed complaints can create downstream efficiencies, potentially shortening 9 the time required to draft later briefs and “persuad[ing] the Commissioner that [a] case 10 should be remanded before the case is fully briefed.” Garcia v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. 11 Admin., No. CIV 18-504-TUC-LAB, 2019 WL 4673335, at *2 (D. Ariz. Sept. 25, 2019). 12 Rather than challenge this efficiency theory, the Commissioner argues that the time 13 spent drafting the complaint was excessive because it did not result in downstream 14 efficiencies when two attorneys—rather than one—drafted briefs. (Doc. 36 at 8.) That 15 argument misses its mark, however, because it addresses the reasonableness of the time 16 spent drafting the opening brief, not whether a more-developed complaint would allow 17 counsel to draft a brief more efficiently than if he had drafted a minimally developed 18 complaint. 19 The Commissioner attacks the remand argument by claiming that Plaintiff’s counsel 20 routinely opposes motions for voluntary remand. (Doc. 36 at 8.) But Plaintiff’s counsel 21 avows that the decision to oppose remand is not up to him but instead “up to the 22 administrative attorney who would have to represent the claimant before the agency.” 23 (Doc. 40 at 10.) What’s more, counsel has stipulated to remand many times before. (Doc. 24 40 at 9 n.9 (listing stipulations).) The Court finds that the 5.3 hours spent drafting the 25 complaint was reasonable. 26 Second, the Commissioner challenges the time spent drafting the opening brief (25 27 hours) because of its boilerplate language and the redundancy of having one attorney draft 28 -2- 1 the brief (15 hours) and the other attorney edit it (10 hours). (Doc. 36 at 12.) A reasonable 2 time, the Commissioner posits, is 18 hours. (Doc. 36 at 12.) 3 In light of the more-developed complaint, the reasonable time for drafting briefs 4 contracts. The opening brief’s boilerplate language and non-boilerplate language should 5 not have taken 25 hours to compile, draft, and edit. See Thomas v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. 6 Admin., CV-18-04230-JZB, Doc. 32 at 4 (D. Ariz. Aug. 7, 2020) (reducing time spent to 7 draft a brief after accounting for time efficiencies created by re-using language); 8 Chanthavong v. Astrue, No. 1:09-CV-1561 SKO, 2011 WL 6751930, at *10 (E.D. Cal. 9 Dec. 23, 2011) (noting that an experienced attorney might reasonably expend 2 hours 10 editing another attorney’s brief). 11 reasonable, and the Court reduces the time by 4 hours to 21 hours. Twenty-five hours for this opening brief is not 12 This, however, should not be construed to devalue having an attorney edit another 13 attorney’s work. Even the most gifted writers see improvements to their work product after 14 having another person proofread their work. Garner on Language and Writing 416 15 (American Bar Association 2009). The Court only notes that it was not reasonable in this 16 case for experienced counsel to expend 10 hours editing a brief that used so much language 17 from the complaint and elsewhere. 18 Third, Commissioner charges the 8 hours spent drafting the 16-page reply brief 19 (Doc. 31) as unreasonable because it “echo[es] many of the arguments made earlier.” (Doc. 20 36 at 12.) But the reply brief does not ape the opening brief; it largely addresses the 21 arguments levied in the Commissioner’s answering brief, covering ground not trod in the 22 opening brief. The Court finds that 8 hours is reasonable. 23 Fourth, the Commissioner asserts that it is unreasonable to bill for time spent 24 reviewing already-filed documents. 25 documents for error has value. Although some attorneys might choose to expend their 26 reasonable review time before filing, some allot a portion of that time for after filing, 27 relying on a notice of errata to make their changes. See Murrieta v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. (Doc. 36 at 12.) 28 -3- As stated above, reviewing 1 Admin., No. CV-19-04865-PHX-DWL, 2021 WL 1208980, at *4 (D. Ariz. Mar. 31, 2021). 2 The Court finds that the 1.5 hours of review time is reasonable. 3 Fifth, the Commissioner argues that several emails are not compensable because 4 they are overly vague. (Doc. 36 at 12.) A plaintiff’s attorney “is not required to record in 5 great detail how each minute of his time was expended,” rather, he “can meet his burden— 6 although just barely—by simply listing his hours and identifying the general subject matter 7 of his time expenditures.” Fischer v. SJB-P.D. Inc., 214 F.3d 1115, 1121 (9th Cir. 2000) 8 (cleaned up). Plaintiff’s attorney did so here, with the exception of one email on January 9 24, 2020, where only the recipient and not the general subject matter is documented. See 10 Murrieta, 2021 WL 1208980, at *4 (addressing the same argument against the same 11 attorney). The Court therefore reduces the fee award by the 0.1 hours expended on that 12 email. 13 Sixth, the Commissioner asks the Court to disallow fees for any reply brief. But 14 just as the Commissioner has every right to oppose these fees in a response brief, so too 15 does Plaintiff’s counsel have every right to submit a reply. The lodestar is reasonableness: 16 would a reasonable attorney have expended those hours on a reply brief? The Court finds 17 that the 3 hours spent drafting a reply brief is reasonable. 18 Finally, the Commissioner argues that the fee award should be made out to Plaintiff 19 as the “prevailing party” under 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), not Plaintiff’s counsel. (Doc. 20 36 at 15.) The Court agrees. See Astrue v. Ratliff, 560 U.S. 586, 589 (2010) (“We hold 21 that a § 2412(d) fees award is payable to the litigant. . . .”). 22 In sum, the Court reduces the time spent on drafting the opening brief by 4 hours 23 and subtracts the 0.1 hours of emailing that is inadequately documented. The Court thus 24 finds that 43.6 hours is compensable, amounting to $9,058.45. 25 /// 26 /// 27 /// 28 -4- 1 IT IS ORDERED that Plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees (Doc. 34) is 2 GRANTED. Plaintiff is awarded $9,058.45 in attorney fees under the EAJA. This award 3 shall be payable to Plaintiff and is subject to offset to satisfy any pre-existing debt that 4 Plaintiff owes the United States pursuant to Astrue v. Ratliff, 560 U.S. 586, 594 (2010). 5 Dated this 18th day of November, 2021. 6 7 8 9 10 Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 -5-

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