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Garcia v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

August 6, 2013

Sherrie Rena Garcia, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

BRIDGET S. BADE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Sherrie Rena Garcia (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. 47.) Defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the government), opposes this motion. (Doc. 50.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the motion and awards fees to Plaintiff in the amount of $10, 065.47.

I. Procedural History

On October 15, 2007, 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. (Tr. 15.)[1] Plaintiff alleged disability with an onset date of September 1, 2002. ( Id. at 32.) Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial level of administrative review. After a hearing, on December 30, 2009, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. ( Id. at 5-22) This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security when the Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. ( Id. at 1-3.)

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 issued an order on January 23, 2013, remanding for further proceedings because it found that the ALJ erred by failing to find that Plaintiff's fibromyalgia was a severe impairment within the meaning of the regulations, and by terminating the evaluation of Plaintiff's case at step two of the sequential evaluation process.[2] (Doc. 45 at 6, 8, 10.)

Plaintiff subsequently filed the pending motion requesting $9, 604.67 in attorney's fees. (Doc. 47.) In her Reply, Plaintiff seeks an additional $460.80 in attorney's fees for time spent preparing her Reply. (Doc. 51.) The government argues that the motion should be denied because its position was substantially justified. The government alternatively argues that amount of fees should be reduced.

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 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"). The government bears the burden of establishing substantial justification. Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 1255, 1258 (9th Cir. 2001).

"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. Id "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 specifically 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 for further proceedings. See Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1257 ("An ...


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