James v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

Filing 17

ORDER granting 15 Motion for Attorney Fees in the amount of $3,924.48 pursuant to the EAJA. Signed by Honorable Barry A. Bryant on March 30, 2017. (mll)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS TEXARKANA DIVISION DAWN JAMES vs. PLAINTIFF Civil No. 4:15-cv-04118 CAROLYN W. COLVIN Commissioner, Social Security Administration DEFENDANT ORDER Pending now before the Court is Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorney’s Fees Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”). ECF No. 15. Defendant has responded to this Motion and objects to part of Plaintiff’s requested fees as not being compensable under EAJA.1 ECF No. 16. The Parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge to conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including conducting the trial, ordering the entry of a final judgment, and conducting all post-judgment proceedings. ECF No. 7. Pursuant to this authority, the Court issues this Order. 1. Background: Dawn Jones (“Plaintiff”) appealed to the Court from the Secretary of the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) denial of her request for disability benefits. ECF No. 1. On January 19, 2017, Plaintiff’s case was reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). ECF Nos. 13-14. On February 2, 2017, Plaintiff filed the present Motion requesting an award of attorney’s fees under EAJA. ECF No. 15. With this Motion, Plaintiff requests an award of $3,924.48. Id. This amount represents 21.0 hours from 2015 and 2016 at an hourly rate of $186.88. Id. Defendant 1 Defendant also objected to this Motion as being premature because it was filed before the judgment was final and not appealable. The Court held this Motion, and it is now no longer premature because the judgment is final and not appealable. responded to this Motion on February 16, 2017. ECF No. 16. In this response, Defendant objects to 1.50 hours Plaintiff has requested because she claims the time expended is not compensable under EAJA. Id. 2. Applicable Law: Pursuant to the EAJA, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), a court must award attorney's fees to a prevailing social security claimant unless the Secretary’s position in denying benefits was substantially justified. The Secretary has the burden of proving that the denial of benefits was substantially justified. See Jackson v. Bowen, 807 F.2d 127, 128 (8th Cir.1986) (“The Secretary bears the burden of proving that its position in the administrative and judicial proceedings below was substantially justified”). An EAJA application also must be made within thirty days of a final judgment in an action, See 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(B), or within thirty days after the sixty day time for appeal has expired. See Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 298 (1993). An award of attorney’s fees under the EAJA is appropriate even though, at the conclusion of the case, the plaintiff’s attorney may be authorized to charge and to 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. See Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 796 (2002) (citing Pub. L. No. 99-80, 99 Stat. 186 (1985)). The United States Supreme Court stated that Congress harmonized an award of attorney’s fees under the EAJA and under 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1) as follows: Fee awards may be made under both prescriptions [EAJA and 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)], but the claimant’s attorney must “refun[d] to the claimant the amount of the smaller fee.”. . .“Thus, an EAJA award offsets an award under Section 406(b), so that the [amount of total past-due benefits the claimant actually receives] will be increased by the . . . EAJA award up to the point the claimant receives 100 percent 2 of the past-due benefits.” Id. 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. See id.; Cornella v. Schweiker, 728 F.2d 978, 986 (8th Cir. 1984). The statutory ceiling for an EAJA fee award is $125.00 per hour. See 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A). A court is only authorized to exceed this statutory rate if “the court determines that an increase in the cost of living or a special factor, such as the limited availability of qualified attorneys for the proceedings involved, justifies a higher fee.” Id. A court may determine that there has been an increase in the cost of living, and may thereby increase the attorney’s rate per hour, based upon the United States Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index (“CPI”). See Johnson v. Sullivan, 919 F.2d 503, 504 (8th Cir. 1990). See also General Order 39 (“Attorney’s Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act”). 3. Discussion: In the present action, Plaintiff’s case was remanded to the SSA. ECF Nos. 13-14. Defendant does not contest Plaintiff’s claim that she is the prevailing party and does not oppose her application for fees under the EAJA. ECF No. 16. The Court construes the lack of opposition to this application as an admission that the government’s decision to deny benefits was not “substantially justified” and that Plaintiff is the prevailing party. Plaintiff requests a total award of $3,924.48. ECF No. 15. This amount represents 21.0 hours of attorney work during 2015 and 2016 at an hourly rate of $186.88. Id. This requested hourly rates is authorized by the EAJA as long as the CPI-South Index justifies this enhanced rate. See General Order 39. See also 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A); Johnson, 919 F.2d at 504. In the present 3 action, Plaintiff has requested $186.88 per hour for work performed in 2015 and 2016. ECF No. 16. Based upon the CPI-South Index, this rate is authorized for both years. Thus, the Court awards that amount. Further, Plaintiff had requested 21.0 hours for attorney work performed in 2015 and 2016. ECF No. 15. Plaintiff has submitted an itemized bill in support of this request. ECF No. 15-1. In response, Defendant objects to 1.50 hour as not being compensable under the EAJA because it is for “clerical work.” ECF No. 16. Defendant claims the following are improper requests: • 12/28/15 “Review and Filing of Complaint” (.75 hour) • 04/21/16 “Filing of Brief” (.75 hour) The Court has reviewed these disputed entries. Upon review of these entries, the Court finds these are not purely clerical in nature. Thus, the Court will not reduce these requested hours of attorney work. Defendant claims the fees awarded should be paid directly to Plaintiff pursuant to Astrue v. Ratliff, 560 U.S. 586, 130 S.Ct. 2521 (2010). ECF No. 16. Ratliff requires that attorney’s fees be awarded to the “prevailing party” or the litigant. See 130 S.Ct. at 2528. Thus, these fees must be awarded to Plaintiff, not to Plaintiff’s attorney. However, if Plaintiff has executed a valid assignment to Plaintiff’s attorney of all rights in an attorney’s fee award and Plaintiff owes no outstanding debt to the federal government, the attorney’s fee may be awarded directly to Plaintiff’s attorney. 4. Conclusion: Based upon the foregoing, the Court awards Plaintiff $3,924.48 in attorney’s fees pursuant to the EAJA, 28 U.S.C. § 2412. This amount includes 21.0 hours of attorney work at an hourly rate 4 of $186.88 for 2015 and 2016. ENTERED this 30th day of March 2017. /s/ Barry A. Bryant HON. BARRY A. BRYANT U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE 5

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