Underwood v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

Filing 14

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER re 11 Motion for Attorney Fees and awarding plaintiff attorney fees in the amount of $1750.00; further amount should be paid in addition to, and not out of, any past due benefits which plaintiff may be awarded in the future and award should be paid directly to plaintiff's counsel. Signed by Honorable James R. Marschewski on March 11, 2010. (rw)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS FORT SMITH DIVISION TRAVIS UNDERWOOD v. CIVIL NO.: 082121 PLAINTIFF MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER Plaintiff, Travis Underwood, appealed the Commissioner's denial of benefits to this court. On November 30, 2009, judgment was entered remanding plaintiff's case to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. 405(g). (Doc. # 10). Plaintiff now moves for an award of $2187.50 in attorney's fees under 28 U.S.C. 2412, the Equal Access to Justice Act (hereinafter "EAJA"), requesting compensation for 17.50 attorney hours at an hourly rate of $125.00. (Doc. # 11-1). The defendant has filed a response voicing no objections. (Doc. #13). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)(1)(A), the court must award attorney's fees to a prevailing social security claimant unless the Commissioner's position in denying benefits was substantially justified. The burden is on the Commissioner to show substantial justification for the government's denial of benefits. Jackson v. Bowen, 807 F.2d 127, 128 (8th Cir. 1986). After reviewing the file, we find plaintiff is a prevailing party in this matter. Under Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 302 (1993), a social security claimant who obtains a sentence-four judgment reversing the Commissioner's denial of benefits and remanding the case for further proceedings is a prevailing party. An award of attorney's fees under the EAJA is appropriate even though at the conclusion AO72A (Rev. 8/82) of the case, plaintiff's attorney may be authorized to charge and collect a fee pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 406(b)(1). Recovery of attorney's fees under both the EAJA and 42 U.S.C. 406(b)(1) was specifically allowed when Congress amended the EAJA in 1985. Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 796, 122 S.Ct. 1817, 1822, 152 L.Ed.2d 996 (2002), citing Pub.L. 99-80, 3, 99 Stat. 186 (1985). To permit a fee award under the EAJA, assuming, of course, that the necessary standard is met, in addition to that allowed by the district court out of a claimant's past-due benefits does no more than reimburse the claimant for his or her expenses and results in no windfall for the attorney. Meyers v. Heckler, 625 F.Supp. 228, 231 (S.D.Ohio 1985). Furthermore, awarding fees under both acts facilitates the purposes of the EAJA, which is to shift to the United States the prevailing party's litigation expenses incurred while contesting unreasonable government action. Id. See also, Cornella v. Schweiker, 728 F.2d 978 (8th Cir.1984). The EAJA further requires an attorney seeking fees to submit "an itemized statement...stating the actual time expended and the rate at which fees and other expenses were computed." 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)(1)(B). Attorneys seeking fees under federal fee-shifting statutes such as the EAJA are required to present fee applications with "contemporaneous time records of hours worked and rates claimed, plus a detailed description of the subject matter of the work." Id. Where documentation is inadequate, the court may reduce the award accordingly. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). In determining a reasonable attorney's fee, the court will in each case consider the following factors: time and labor required; the difficulty of questions involved; the skill required to handle the problems presented; the attorney's experience, ability, and reputation; the benefits resulting to the client from the services; the customary fee for similar services; the contingency AO72A (Rev. 8/82) or certainty of compensation; the results obtained; and the amount involved. Allen v. Heckler, 588 F.Supp. 1247 (W.D.N.Y. 1984). However, the EAJA is not designed to reimburse without limit. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 573 (1988). The district court is "in the best position to evaluate counsel's services and fee request, particularly when the court has had the opportunity to observe firsthand counsel's representation on the substantive aspects of the disability claim." Hickey v. Secretary of HHS, 923 F.2d 585, 586 (8th Cir. 1991)(quoting Cotter v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 359, 361 (8th Cir. 1989)). The court can determine the reasonableness and accuracy of a fee request, even in the absence of an objection by the Commissioner. See Decker v. Sullivan, 976 F.2d 456, 459 (8th Cir. 1992) ("Although the issue was not raised on appeal, fairness to the parties requires an accurately calculated attorney's fee award."). The Contract with America Advancement Act of 1996, passed on March 29, 1996, amended the EAJA and increased the statutory ceiling for the EAJA fee awards from $75.00 to $125.00 per hour. See 28 U.S.C. 2 412(d)(2)(A). Plaintiff requests attorney's fees under the EAJA at an hourly rate of $125.00. Attorney's fees may not be awarded in excess of $125.00 per hour - the maximum statutory rate under 2412(d)(2)(A) - unless the court finds that an increase in the cost of living or a special factor such as the limited availability of qualified attorneys justifies a higher fee. 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)(2)(A). The decision to increase the hourly rate is not automatic and remains at the discretion of the district court. McNulty v. Sullivan, 886 F.2d 1074 (8th Cir. 1989). In Johnson v. Sullivan, 919 F.2d 503 (8th Cir. 1990), the court stated that the hourly rate may be increased when there is "uncontested proof of an increase in the cost of living sufficient to justify hourly attorney's fees of more than $75.00 an hour," such as a copy of the Consumer Price Index. AO72A (Rev. 8/82) In this case, counsel has not attached a summary of the Consumer Price Index as an exhibit or presented evidence of an increase in the cost of living. Thus, we find that counsel is entitled to an hourly rate for the award of attorney's fees in this case in the amount of $125.00 per hour. We next address the number of hours plaintiff's counsel claims she spent working on this case. Plaintiff's counsel seeks reimbursement for .50 hours for receiving the file-stamped copy of the complaint and summons, sending out summonses, and signing the Consent to Jurisdiction; .25 hours for reviewing the file regarding service of process; and, .25 hours for reviewing the file on October 17, 2009. We note, however, that many of these tasks could have been performed by staff. See Granville House, Inc. v. Department of HEW, 813 F.2d 881, 884 (8th Cir. 1987) (work which could have been completed by support staff is not compensable under the EAJA). Therefore, .95 hours will be deducted from the total number of compensable hours. Counsel also requests .25 hours for receiving the NEF assigning the case to the Magistrate Judge; .50 hours receiving the NEF and reviewing the Defendant's answer, .25 hours receiving the NEF regarding the Defendant's Motion for Extension of Time, 1.50 hours receiving the NEF and reviewing the Defendant's brief, .50 hours preparing a status letter to plaintiff; and, 1.50 hours receiving the NEF of the Memorandum Opinion and Judgment and reviewing both. This court concludes that it should not have taken an attorney experienced in handling social security cases this amount of time to perform this task. Bowman v. Secretary of H.H.S., 744 F.Supp 898 (E.D.Ark. 1989). Many of these Orders were one page documents that are filed in all Social Security cases filed in this district. Accordingly, we will deduct 2.55 hours from counsel's total number of billable hours. Based on the above, we award plaintiff's attorney fees under the EAJA for: 14.00 (17.503.50) attorney hours, at the rate of $125.00 per hour for a total attorney's fee award of $1750.00 AO72A (Rev. 8/82) This amount should be paid in addition to, and not out of, any past due benefits which plaintiff may be awarded in the future. Further, this award should be paid directly to plaintiff's counsel. Ratliff v. Astrue, 540 F.3d 800, 802 (8th Cir. 2008). The parties are reminded that the award herein under the EAJA will be taken into account at such time as a reasonable fee is determined pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 406, in order to prevent double recovery by counsel for the plaintiff. Dated this 11th day of March 2010. /s/ J. Marschewski H O N . JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE AO72A (Rev. 8/82)

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