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Shreves v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

August 6, 2013

Rhonda Lynn Shreves, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


BRIDGET S. BADE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Rhonda Lynn Shreves (Plaintiff) has filed a Motion for Award of Attorney's Fees Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. (Doc. 26.) Defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the government), opposes this motion. (Doc. 31.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion.

I. Procedural History

On November 22, 2006, Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. § 401-434, alleging disability with an onset date of August 4, 2002. (Tr. 19.)[1] Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial level of administrative review. After a hearing, on June 23, 2009, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied Plaintiff's application for benefits finding that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 19-33.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security when the Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 16, 2011. ( Id. at 1-5.)

Plaintiff then brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. 1.) This Court reversed the decision and remanded the case for further consideration. (Doc. 24.) Thereafter, Plaintiff filed the pending motion requesting an award of $7, 728.51 in attorney's fees under the EAJA. (Doc. 27.) In the Reply in support of her motion, Plaintiff requests an additional $460.80 in attorney's fees for time expended preparing her Reply. (Doc. 32.) Plaintiff also requests that any attorney's fees awarded be paid by a check sent directly to her attorney's office. (Doc. 27.) The government argues that the motion should be denied because it was substantially justified in defending this matter. The government also argues, that unless Plaintiff agrees to waive the requirements of the Anti-Assignment Act, and there is no debt owed by Plaintiff under the Treasury Offset Program, any award of attorney's fees should be paid directly to Plaintiff, not to her attorney. (Doc. 31.)

II. Attorney's Fees under the EAJA

In any action brought by or against the United States, the EAJA provides that "a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses... unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A) (emphasis added); see also Thomas v. Peterson, 841 F.2d 332, 335 (9th Cir. 1988) (stating that the EAJA creates a presumption that fees will be awarded to the prevailing party unless the government establishes that its position was "substantially justified").

"Substantially justified means justified in substance or in the main - that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (internal citations omitted). A substantially justified position must have a reasonable basis both in law and fact. Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 1255, 1258 (9th Cir. 2001). The Ninth Circuit applies a reasonableness standard in determining whether the government's position was substantially justified for EAJA purposes. United States v. Rubin, 97 F.3d 373, 375 (9th Cir. 1996); Flores v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 562, 569 (9th Cir. 1995). The government bears the burden of establishing that its position was substantially justified. Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1258. "The position of the United States' includes both the government's litigation position and the underlying agency action giving rise to the civil action." Meier v. Colvin, 2013 WL 3802382, at *1 (9th Cir. Jul. 23, 2013). The EAJA provides that, "[t]he position of the United States' means, in addition to the posture 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." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(D).

In the Social Security context, the Ninth Circuit treats the ALJ's decision as the "action or failure to act by the agency upon which the civil action is based." Meier, 2013 WL 3802382, at *2. Thus, when applying the substantial justification test, the court determines "(1) whether the [ALJ] was substantially justified in taking [the] original action, and (2) whether the government was substantially justified in defending the validity of the action in court." Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1258; see also Meier, 2013 WL 3802382, at *3 ("Applying the substantial justification test [in the Social Security context, the court] first consider[s] the underlying agency action, which... is the decision of the ALJ. [The court] then considers the government's litigation position.").

III. Analysis

A. Prevailing Party

The Court must first determine whether Plaintiff qualifies as a prevailing party under the EAJA. A plaintiff is a prevailing party if he or she succeeds on "any significant issue that achieves some of the benefit sought in bringing the suit." Penrod v. Apfel, 54 F.Supp.2d 961, 963 (D. Ariz. 1999) (citing Tex. State Teachers Ass'n. v. Garland Indep. School Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 791-92 (1989)). A claimant who obtains a court order remanding a Social Security case to the Commissioner either for further proceedings or for an award of benefits is a prevailing party under the EAJA. Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 300-01 (1993). Here, the parties do not dispute that Plaintiff is a prevailing party because the Court remanded this matter to the ALJ for further consideration. See Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1257 ("An applicant for disability benefits becomes a prevailing party for purposes of the EAJA if the denial of benefits is reversed and remanded regardless of whether disability benefits are ultimately awarded.).

B. Underlying Agency Conduct

The parties disagree as to whether the ALJ's decision in this case was substantially justified. The Order remanding this case for further proceedings was based on the Court's conclusion that the ALJ erred at steps four and five of the sequential evaluation process. (Doc. 24 at 20-23.) Specifically, the Court found that the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff retained the mental residual functional capacity to perform "unskilled work" was not a substitute for the ALJ's obligation to assess Plaintiff's degree of functional limitation resulting from her impairment and rendered the ALJ's decision susceptible to "overlooking limitations or restrictions that ...

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