Obermeier v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

Filing 15

AMENDED ORDER re 14 Order and 11 Motion for Attorney Fees awarding plaintiff's attorney fees in the amount of $2709.70; further 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. Signed by Honorable James R. Marschewski on March 18, 2009. (rw)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT W E S T E R N DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS H A R R IS O N DIVISION K A T H Y L. OBERMEIER v. C IV IL NO. 07-3057 P LA IN T IF F M IC H A E L J. ASTRUE, Commissioner S o cial Security Administration DEFENDANT A M E N D E D ORDER P lain tiff, Kathy Obermeier, appealed the Commissioner's denial of benefits to this court. On November 3, 2008, judgment was entered remanding plaintiff's case to the Commissioner p u rsu an t to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. 405(g). (Doc. # 9). Plaintiff now moves for an award o f $3872.50 in attorney's fees and costs under 28 U.S.C. 2412, the Equal Access to Justice Act (h erein after "EAJA"), requesting compensation for 25.30 attorney hours at an hourly rate of $ 1 5 2 .0 0 and expenses in the amount of $ 26.90. (Doc. # 11, 12). The defendant has filed a resp o n se voicing no objections to counsel's request for fees. (Doc. #13). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)(1)(A), the court must award attorney's fees to a prevailing so cial security claimant unless the Commissioner's position in denying benefits was substantially j u s tif i e d . The burden is on the Commissioner to show substantial justification for the go v ern m en t's denial of benefits. Jackson v. Bowen, 807 F.2d 127, 128 (8th Cir. 1986). After rev iew in g the file, we find plaintiff is a prevailing party in this matter. Under Shalala v. Schaefer, 5 0 9 U.S. 292, 302 (1993), a social security claimant who obtains a sentence-four judgment rev ersin g 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) o f 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 sp ecifically 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 stan d ard is met, in addition to that allowed by the district court out of a claimant's p ast-d u e benefits does no more than reimburse the claimant for his or her expenses an d results in no windfall for the attorney. M eyers v. Heckler, 625 F.Supp. 228, 231 (S.D.Ohio 1985). Furthermore, awarding fees under b o th acts facilitates the purposes of the EAJA, which is to shift to the United States the prevailing p arty's litigation expenses incurred while contesting unreasonable government action. Id. See a lso , Cornella v. Schweiker, 728 F.2d 978 (8th Cir.1984). T h e EAJA further requires an attorney seeking fees to submit "an itemized statem en t...statin g the actual time expended and the rate at which fees and other expenses were co m p u ted ." 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)(1)(B). Attorneys seeking fees under federal fee-shifting statutes su ch as the EAJA are required to present fee applications with "contemporaneous time records of h o u rs 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. E ckerh a rt, 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 2 AO72A (Rev. 8/82) resulting to the client from the services; the customary fee for similar services; the contingency 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 $152.00. 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 $152.00 per hour. 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 3 AO72A (Rev. 8/82) 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. In this case, counsel has attached a summary of the Consumer Price Index as an exhibit and has 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 $152.00 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 .25 hour preparing a letter to the plaintiff accepting the case; .30 hour drafting the service letters and signing the consent for magistrate review; .25 hour drafting the affidavit of service; and, .40 hour preparing a letter to the Administrative Counsel advising him/her of the decision and points found persuasive. However, we find that many of these tasks could have been performed by support 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, 1.85 hours will be deducted from the total number of compensable hours. Counsel also requests compensation for 15.50 hours for the preparation of plaintiff's brief. However, there were no unique or complex issues to be developed in this particular case, and the transcript was a mere 230 pages long. Plaintiff's counsel frequently represents social security plaintiff's before this court and should be well versed in social security law. Accordingly, we find that the time submitted for preparing this brief to be excessive. Therefore we are reducing the number of hours submitted for the preparation of plaintiff's brief to 11.00 hours. 4 AO72A (Rev. 8/82) In addition, counsel has requested 1.00 hour for researching and drafting the complaint, .50 hour for receiving and reviewing the answer, .15 hour for receiving and reviewing the scheduling order, and .75 hour for receiving and reviewing the judgment and memorandum opinion. 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). Accordingly, we will deduct 1.30 hours from counsel's total number of billable hours. Finally, counsel seeks reimbursement for $27.79 in expenses incurred with regard to the postage and copies. Such expenses are recoverable under the EAJA and we find $26.90 to be a reasonable award. See Kelly v. Bowen, 862 F.2d 1333, 1335 (8th Cir. 1988). Based on the above, we recommend awarding plaintiff's attorney fees under the EAJA for:17.65 (25.30-7.65) attorney hours, at the rate of $152.00 per hour and $26.90 in fees for a total attorney's fee award of $2709.70. 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 18th day of March 2009. /s/ J. Marschewski H O N . JAMES R. MARSCHEWSKI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 5 AO72A (Rev. 8/82)

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