Hadi v. Colvin

Filing 31

ORDER granting Plaintiff's 27 Motion for Attorney Fees. Court awards Plaintiff attorney's fees in the amount of $18,458.58. Signed by Judge Cynthia Bashant on 6/20/2017. (jah)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 10 11 JOHN HADI, Plaintiff, 12 13 14 15 Case No. 15-cv-01421-BAS(PCL) v. ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS’ FEES [ECF No. 27] NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant. 16 17 Plaintiff brought this case requesting that the Court reverse the finding of the 18 Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denying Plaintiff disability benefits. The Court 19 granted Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and denied Defendant’s Motion 20 for Summary Judgment, remanding the case back to the ALJ for further proceedings. 21 (ECF No. 26.) 22 Plaintiff now moves for his attorneys’ fees to be reimbursed by Defendant1 23 under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. §2412(d), in the amount 24 25 26 27 28 1 On January 23, 2017, Nancy A. Berryhill became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security. She is therefore substituted as Defendant in this suit for former Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin. Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d); 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(d) (stating that where an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner is instituted “the person holding the Office of the Commissioner shall, in his official capacity, be the proper defendant”). –1– 15cv1421 1 of $18,458.58.2 (ECF Nos. 27, 29.) Defendant opposes, arguing first that the 2 Government’s position was “substantially justified” and thus attorneys’ fees are not 3 warranted, and, second, that the amount requested is excessive. (ECF No. 28.) For 4 the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorneys’ Fees. 5 (ECF No. 27.) 6 I. ANALYSIS The Government’s Position Was Not Substantially Justified. 7 A. 8 The EAJA provides that “a court shall award to a prevailing party . . . fees and 9 other expenses . . . incurred by that party in any civil action . . . brought by or against 10 the United States . . . unless the court finds that the position of the United States was 11 substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.” 28 12 U.S.C. §2412(d)(1)(A); see also Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 796 (2002). 13 Thus, to be eligible for attorneys’ fees under the EAJA: (1) the claimant must be a 14 “prevailing party”; (2) the government’s position must not have been “substantially 15 justified”; and (3) no special circumstances can exist that make an award of attorneys’ 16 fees unjust. Comm’r, Immigration & Naturalization Serv. v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 158 17 (1990). 18 The Supreme Court has held that a position may be substantially justified “if 19 it has a reasonable basis in law and fact.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 566 20 n.2 (1988). When determining whether the government’s position was substantially 21 justified, the court considers “both the government’s litigation position and the 22 underlying agency action giving rise to the civil action.” Meier v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 23 867, 870 (9th Cir. 2013). 24 substantially justified.” Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 1255, 1258-59 (9th Cir. 25 2001) (emphasis omitted). It also “must be substantially justified at each stage of the The government’s position must be “as a whole, 26 27 28 2 Plaintiff initially requested $17,953.06. In his Reply to Defendant’s Opposition, he agreed to reduce this request by 5 hours incurred in 2015 for review of the administrative record, for an adjusted amount of $17,001.66. (Reply 2:3, n.1.) Yet, Plaintiff also seeks to now recover for 7.6 hours to draft his Reply, bringing the total amount to $18,458.58. (Id. 8:7–10, n.8.) –2– 15cv1421 1 proceedings.” Corbin v. Apfel, 149 F.3d 1051, 1052 (9th Cir. 1998) (internal 2 quotation marks omitted). 3 government’s position on the particular issue on which the claimant earned remand 4 was substantially justified, not on whether the government’s ultimate disability 5 determination was substantially justified.” Hardisty v. Astrue, 592 F.3d 1072, 1078 6 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing Flores v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 562, 566 (9th Cir. 1990)). “It is the 7 government’s burden to show that its position was substantially justified or that 8 special circumstances exist to make an award unjust.” Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1258. 9 The Government does not meet its burden to show that its position in this case 10 was substantially justified. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to give 11 adequate consideration to the opinion of the treating physicians. The Magistrate 12 Judge found this to be the case and issued a detailed Report and Recommendation 13 (“R&R”) laying out how the ALJ had erred. (ECF No. 22.) Despite this detailed 14 explanation, the Government filed objections to the R&R, once again arguing that 15 the ALJ was well-founded in the decision. (ECF No. 25.) This Court disagreed and 16 adopted the R&R in its entirety. (ECF No. 26.) Both the Government’s litigation 17 position as well as the underlying agency action had no reasonable basis in law and 18 fact. Nor does the Government show any special circumstances that would make the 19 award unjust. Therefore, an award of attorneys’ fees in this case is appropriate. “[D]istrict courts should focus on whether the 20 B. The Amount Requested Is Reasonable. 21 Courts should apply the lodestar method in determining reasonable fees. Costa 22 v. Comm’r of Social Sec. Admin., 690 F.3d 1132, 1135 (9th Cir. 2012). The court 23 calculates the number of hours reasonably expended on the case—cutting any 24 excessive, redundant, or unnecessary hours—and multiplies those hours by a 25 reasonable hourly rate. Id. Although the court may reduce the number of hours for 26 duplicative work, determining this is no easy task because “[o]ne certainly expects 27 some degree of duplication as an inherent part of the process.” Moreno v. City of 28 Sacramento, 534 F.3d 1106, 1112 (9th Cir. 2008) (emphasis in original). –3– 15cv1421 1 Generally, the court should defer to the winning lawyer’s professional 2 judgment as to how much time was required for the case. Costa, 690 F.3d at 1135; 3 Moreno, 534 F.3d at 1112 (“[A]fter all he [or she] won, and might not have, had he 4 [or she] been more of a slacker.”). Although surveying hourly rates awarded to 5 attorneys of comparable experience and skill can be a useful tool, “it is far less useful 6 for assessing how much time an attorney can reasonably spend on a specific case 7 because that determination will always depend on case-specific factors including, 8 among others, the complexity of the legal issues, the procedural history, the size of 9 the record and when counsel was retained.” Costa, 690 F.3d at 1136. If the 10 government disputes the reasonableness of the fee, then it “has a burden of rebuttal 11 that requires submission of evidence to the district court challenging the accuracy 12 and reasonableness of the hours charged or the facts asserted by the prevailing party 13 in its submitted affidavits.” Gates v. Deukmejian, 987 F.2d 1392, 1397-98 (9th Cir. 14 1992). 15 In this case, Plaintiff submits a Declaration of Nichole Mendoza which 16 confirms that she is experienced in the area of Social Security litigation. (ECF No. 17 27-2 (“Mendoza Decl.”) ¶ 3.) The Government does not question the hourly rates 18 she submits. They are taken from the EAJA statutory rates and appear eminently 19 reasonable. Instead, the Government questions the number of hours required to 20 litigate the case. 21 The Court notes that 140.9 hours were logged by the attorneys from the Legal 22 Aid Society of San Diego (“LASSD”) working on this case prior to the preparation 23 of Plaintiff’s Reply. (Mendoza Decl. ¶ 5, Exs. B & C.) The LASSD already 24 voluntarily struck approximately one-third of its bill, or 46.8 hours, as unnecessary 25 or duplicative. (Id.) Nonetheless, the Government points to three factors supporting 26 its argument that the number of hours billed is unreasonable: (1) the amount of time 27 spent reviewing the administrative record is excessive; (2) “[m]ultiple attorneys 28 billed for the same items causing redundant and duplicative work,” and (3) the –4– 15cv1421 1 number of hours drafting the Summary Judgment Reply Brief is excessive since it 2 contains the same arguments as the Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 28.) The Court disagrees. 3 First, the LASSD explains that review of the 4 administrative record was particularly laborious in this case because much of it was 5 difficult to decipher and was not in chronological order, with notes from the same 6 doctors scattered throughout. 7 requested for review of the administrative record by five hours. The Court thus finds 8 the amount of time spent reviewing the administrative record to be reasonable. 9 Second, the Court finds no evidence that multiple attorneys billed for the same task 10 or in fact that there was any redundant or duplicative work. Finally, Plaintiff filed an 11 11-page Reply Brief (ECF No. 19) carefully tailored to the Government’s Response 12 to the Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18). The Government fails to show 13 that the amount of time billed for this Brief was unreasonable, after all, Plaintiff was 14 ultimately successful in convincing the Court to grant the Motion for Summary 15 Judgment. The LASSD also agrees to reduce the amount 16 Although the Government cites to Social Security cases in which far lesser 17 amounts of attorneys’ fees were awarded, Plaintiff then cites to cases in which 18 comparable amounts were awarded. As noted in the Costa case, these comparisons 19 are not very useful. In the cases cited by the Government, it is not immediately clear 20 whether (i) the administrative record was difficult to decipher and not in 21 chronological order, (ii) the motion for summary judgment briefing was comparably 22 thorough, or (iii) an R&R was objected to—necessitating a response. Hence, the 23 Court finds the Government does not meet its burden of demonstrating Plaintiff’s fee 24 request is unreasonable by simply citing a collection of decisions that awarded lesser 25 amounts. 26 // 27 // 28 // –5– 15cv1421 1 2 II. CONCLUSION The Court finds Plaintiff, as the prevailing party, is entitled to attorneys’ fees 3 in this case and that the requested fees are reasonable. 4 GRANTS Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorneys’ Fees (ECF No. 27) and awards Plaintiff 5 attorneys’ fees in the amount of $18,458.58. 6 Therefore, the Court IT IS SO ORDERED. 7 8 DATED: June 20, 2017 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 –6– 15cv1421

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