Howard v. Social Security Administration
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER -- The Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motions for Attorney's Fees ECF Nos. 25 & 28 as more fully set out in order. Signed by Magistrate Judge Shon T. Erwin on 11/22/17. (mc)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of the Social Security
Case No. CIV-16-1117-STE
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion and Brief in Support for an Award of
Attorney’s Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) 28 U.S.C. § 2412. (ECF No.
25) and Plaintiff’s Supplemental Motion for an Award of Attorney’s Fees Under the Equal
Access to Justice Act (ECF No. 28). Specifically, Plaintiff seeks an award of fees in the
amount of $5,999.80 (ECF Nos. 25, 28). Defendant objects to any award of fees, arguing
that her position was “substantially justified.” (ECF No. 23). The Court rejects Defendant’s
argument and GRANTS an award of fees to Plaintiff in the amount requested.
ATTORNEY FEES AUTHORIZED UNDER EAJA
EAJA entitles a prevailing party to recover reasonable attorney fees from the
government “‘unless the court finds that the position of the United States was
substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.’” Al–Maleki v.
Holder, 558 F.3d 1200, 1204 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A)). The
test for “substantial justification” is one of “reasonableness in law and fact.” Hackett v.
Barnhart, 475 F.3d 1166, 1172 (10th Cir. 2007). In other words, “the government’s
position must be “justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.” Pierce v.
Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, (1988).
Once an EAJA application is filed, the government must justify both its position in
any underlying administrative proceedings and in any subsequent court litigation. See
Hackett v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 1166, 1170 (10th Cir. 2007); 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(D)
(explaining that the “position of the United States” is “in addition to the position taken by
the United States in the civil action, the action or failure to act by the agency upon which
the civil action is based.”). Therefore, fees should generally be awarded where the
agency’s underlying action was unreasonable even if the government advanced a
reasonable litigation position. Id. at 1174. The burden rests with the government to prove
that its position was substantially justified. Kemp v. Bowen, 822 F.2d 966, 967 (10th Cir.
PLAINTIFF IS THE PREVAILING PARTY
Previously, the undersigned ordered: (1) reversal of the Commissioner’s decision
denying Plaintiff’s applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance
benefits, and (2) a remand for further administrative proceedings. (ECF Nos. 23 & 24).
With the reversal and remand, Ms. Howard is considered the “prevailing party” for
purposes of EAJA. See Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292 (1993). Thus, the only issues
are whether the government’s position was “substantially justified” and whether any
special circumstances exist which would prevent an award of benefits.
PLAINTIFF IS ENTITLED TO AN AWARD OF BENEFITS
The Court’s reversal was based on: (1) the ALJ’s improper evaluation of an opinion
from treating physician, Dr. Juan Maldonado, (2) the ALJ’s failure to evaluate Ms.
Howard’s anxiety utilizing the regulatory “special technique” used for evaluating mental
impairments, and (3) error in the credibility analysis. (ECF No. 23:3-16).
Treating physician Dr. Maldonado opined that Plaintiff had the ability to:
stand and walk less than 2 hours during an 8-hour workday,
sit for 2 hours during an 8-hour workday, and
occasionally and/or frequently lift and/or carry less than 10 pounds.
(TR. 383). Dr. Maldonado also stated that Ms. Howard’s impairment: (1) was likely to
interfere with her ability to maintain attention and concentrate for 25% or more of her
workday and (2) would likely cause her to be absent from work more than 3 days per
month. (TR. 383).
The ALJ only mentioned limitations in Dr. Maldonado’s opinion related to Plaintiff’s
ability to sit, stand, and walk, and ultimately, the ALJ accorded the opinion “little weight,”
citing three reasons. (TR. 18). As explained in the Court’s Memorandum Opinion and
Order, the ALJ’s reasons for discounting Dr. Maldonado’s opinion lacked support in the
record. (ECF No. 23:6-7).
On appeal, the Commissioner attempted to justify the ALJ’s treatment of Dr.
Maldonado’s opinion by citing evidence that the ALJ himself had not cited. (ECF No. 17:3-
10). The Court rejected Ms. Berryhill’s argument because it relied on post-hoc rationales
which had not been cited by the ALJ. (ECF No. 23:8).
In arguing that the Commissioner’s position was “substantially justified,” Ms. Berryhill
reiterates the argument she made on appeal, citing various medical records and arguing
that as a whole, the records supported the ALJ’s treatment of Dr. Maldonado’s opinions.
(ECF. No. 26:4-6). But as noted by Defendant herself, the Commissioner’s decision may be
“substantially justified” “if it has a reasonable basis in law and fact.” (ECF No. 26:3)
(emphasis added). A long-standing principal in this Circuit holds that the Court is not
permitted to supply post-hoc rationales to uphold the Commissioner’s decision. See Haga
v. Astrue, 482 F.3d 1205, 1207 (10th Cir. 2007) (“[T]his court may not create or adopt
post-hoc rationalizations to support the ALJ’s decision that are not apparent from the
ALJ’s decision itself.”); Hackett v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1168, 1173 (10th Cir. 2005) (the
Court should not “substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.”). Applying this
principal, the Court rejects Ms. Berryhill’s argument that her position was “substantially
justified” because it does not have a reasonable basis in law.
The Court also found error in the ALJ’s failure to utilize the regulatory “special
technique” for evaluating mental impairments in light of evidence that Plaintiff had been
diagnosed with anxiety and had been taking prescription medication to treat the
condition. (ECF No. 23:9-11).
In support of her argument that her position on appeal was “substantially
justified,” Ms. Berryhill argues that the Plaintiff failed to allege a mental disorder at the
hearing, the record contained only one diagnosis of a mental disorder, and other
examinations showed “favorable” mental functional findings.” (ECF No. 26:8). These
arguments are unavailing, for three reasons. First, Ms. Howard complained of panic
attacks in her disability report and also noted that she was taking prescription medication
for anxiety. (TR. 234, 236, 252, 257). Second, the one diagnosis of a mental disorder
along with evidence that Plaintiff was taking prescription medication to treat the disorder,
triggered a legal duty for the ALJ to employ the “special technique.” See George v. Astrue,
451 F. App’x 767, 768-769 (10th Cir. 2011) (ALJ erred in failing to evaluate plaintiff’s
mental impairment utilizing the “special technique” when presented with evidence that
plaintiff suffered from anxiety and had been prescribed medication). And finally, the ALJ
did not rely on “other favorable findings” regarding Plaintiff’s mental health, and the
Commissioner cannot do so now. See supra (discussion regarding post-hoc
The Court found error because the ALJ had discounted Ms. Howard’s subjective
allegations by relying only on Plaintiff’s daily activities and mischaracterizing those
activities. (ECF No. 23:12-16). In defense of the Commissioner’s position as “substantially
justified,” Ms. Berryhill offers two arguments. First, the Commissioner states that the ALJ
“expressly and correctly noted objective medical evidence of Plaintiff’s physical
functioning that did not support the alleged severity of her complaints[.]” (ECF No. 26:89). Second, Ms. Berryhill states that the ALJ “expressly noted that treatment for Plaintiff’s
back pain was somewhat effective.” (ECF No. 26:9). Neither argument is convincing.
First, Plaintiff does not specify the “objective medical evidence of Plaintiff’s physical
functioning” that did not support the alleged severity of her complaints which the ALJ had
specifically relied on. Second, Ms. Berryhill’s argument regarding treatment for Plaintiff’s
back impairment is misleading. In the opinion, the ALJ stated “On April 23, 2013, the
claimant[’s] back condition was noted to be ‘stable on medications.’” (TR. 18). This is the
evidence on which Ms. Berryhill bases her argument regarding “somewhat effective”
treatment for Plaintiff’s back. (ECF No. 26:9). But the ALJ did not state that treatment for
Plaintiff’s back pain was “somewhat effective”—he simply noted that she was “stable” on
medications, without specifying the level of stability. In fact, in his discussion of Plaintiff’s
credibility, the ALJ specifically wrote: “The claimant stated that injections and prescription
pain medication has been ineffective in totally controlling her pain.” (TR. 17).
As noted by Ms. Berryhill, her position may be found “substantially justified” “if it
has a reasonable basis in law and fact.” (ECF No. 26:3) (emphasis added). Ms. Berryhill’s
arguments in defense of the ALJ’s credibility determination lack a factual basis and as a
result, her position is not “substantially justified.”
AMOUNT OF RECOVERABLE FEE
Ms. Berryhill did not meet her burden of proof to show that the government’s
position was substantially justified. Further, the undersigned knows of no special
circumstances which would make an award of attorney fees unjust. Thus, the only
remaining issue concerns the reasonableness of the fee requested.
Plaintiff seeks an attorney fee award of $5,999.80, calculated as follows: 3.10
hours of work performed by her attorney in 2016 at a rate of $193.00 per hour ($598.30),
and 27.7 hours of work performed by her attorney in 2017 at a rate of $195.00 per hour,
($5,401.50) (ECF No. 25-1 & 28). Mr. Saunders has provided a detailed breakdown of
time expended in representing Ms. Howard, and the undersigned finds that this
uncontroverted statement reflects a reasonable amount of time for this matter. However,
an award under EAJA is limited to $125.00 per hour unless the court determines that an
increase in the cost of living or another special factor justifies a higher fee. 28 U.S.C.
Mr. Saunders has requested an upward adjustment of the statutory rate for
attorney fees and has provided supporting documentation in the form of a letter dated
March 27, 2017, from the Office of the General Counsel of the Social Security
Administration. (ECF No. 25-3). This letter shows that for 2016 and 2017, the authorized
maximum hourly rates for attorney work in Oklahoma were $193.00 and $195.00,
respectively. (ECF No. 25-3). Thus, Ms. Howard is entitled to an upward adjustment of
the hourly attorney fee consistent with the evidence provided.
The Court therefore finds that the Plaintiff is entitled to a total attorney fee award
in the amount of $5,999.80. Said fee is payable to the Plaintiff, in care of her attorney,
Mr. Saunders. See Astrue v. Ratliff, 130 S.Ct. 2521, 2524 (2010) (fee is payable to
Plaintiff); Honeycutt v. Colvin, No. 13-CV-1243-DDC, 2016 WL 4000930, at *9 (D. Kan.
July 26, 2016) (awarding EAJA fees to be made payable to plaintiff in care of plaintiff's
counsel). If attorney fees are also awarded under 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) of the Social Security
Act, Plaintiff’s counsel is to refund the smaller amount to Plaintiff. Weakley v. Bowen, 803
F.2d 575, 580 (10th Cir. 1986).
The Court GRANTS Plaintiff’s Motions for Attorney’s Fees (ECF Nos. 25 & 28)
in the amount of $5,999.80.
ENTERED on November 22, 2017.
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