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Mendoza v. Astrue

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 5, 2016

Diana M. Mendoza, Plaintiff,
Michael J. Astrue, et al., Defendants.


          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Diana M. Mendoza ("Plaintiff")'s motion for attorneys' fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). (Doc. 38). The Court now rules on the motion.

         I. Background

         On June 12, 2007, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 12-3 at 18). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on September 13, 2007, and again upon reconsideration on June 19, 2008. (Id.) After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiff's benefits claim on April 13, 2010, finding that although she suffered from severe fibromyalgia, she could perform past relevant work. (Id. at 15-30). On June 11, 2010, Plaintiff filed an appeal with the Appeals Council, Office of Hearings and Appeals, Social Security Administration, which ultimately denied review of the ALJ's decision on November 17, 2011. (Id. at 13). On January 12, 2012, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 1).

         On April 30, 2013, the Court affirmed the ALJ's decision to deny Plaintiff disability benefits. (Doc. 27). The Court specifically held that the ALJ's decision was adequately supported by the evidence on the record and was not in legal error. (Id. at 6- 21). The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed that decision on appeal and remanded for an award of benefits. (Doc. 34-1). Plaintiff now seeks $19, 127.50 in attorneys' fees pursuant to the EAJA. (Doc. 43 at 12).

         II. Legal Standard

         The Ninth Circuit has succinctly stated the legal standard for an award of attorneys' fees under the EAJA as follows:

EAJA provides that a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses incurred by that party in any civil action unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust. It is the government's burden to show that its position was substantially justified. Substantial justification means justified in substance or in the main-that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person. Put differently, the government's position must have a reasonable basis both in law and fact. The position of the United States includes both the government's litigation position and the underlying agency action giving rise to the civil action. Thus, if the government's underlying position was not substantially justified, we must award fees and need not address whether the government's litigation position was justified.

Tobeler v. Colvin, 749 F.3d 830, 832 (9th Cir. 2014) (citations, quotation marks, and alterations omitted).

         III. Analysis

         A. Whether Plaintiff is entitled to an Award of Fees under the EAJA

         Because the Ninth Circuit reversed the ALJ's denial and remanded for an award of benefits, there is no dispute that Plaintiff is the prevailing party within the meaning of the EAJA. See Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 2001) (stating that an applicant for disability benefits becomes a prevailing party for the purposes of the EAJA if the denial of benefits is reversed and remanded regardless of whether disability benefits ultimately are awarded). Nonetheless, "the fact that one other court agreed or disagreed with the Government does not establish whether its position was substantially justified." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 596 (1988).

         Although Plaintiff agrees that the reversal does not resolve the issue of attorneys' fees, she argues that the ALJ committed three errors that justify an award of fees. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that awarding fees is appropriate because: (1) the ALJ's decision to assign "little weight" to treating physician Dr. Nolan's opinions was not supported by "reasonable, substantial and probative evidence"; (2) Plaintiff's credibility was rejected without "specific, clear and convincing reasons"; and (3) the testimony of Plaintiff's father-in-law was rejected without "specific, clear and convincing reasons." (Doc. 43 at 2). In response, the Government posits that this Court's prior agreement with its position on these issues indicates that a reasonable person could find that its litigation position was substantially justified. (Doc. 40 at 3).

         The Ninth Circuit has made "clear that when an agency's decision is unsupported by substantial evidence it is a strong indication that the position of the United States is not substantially justified." Campbell v. Astrue, 736 F.3d 867, 869 (9th Cir. 2013). Only "decidedly unusual" cases overcome this "strong presumption." See Thangaraja v. Gonzales, 428 F.3d 870, 874 (9th Cir. 2005) ("Indeed, it will be only a decidedly unusual case in which there is substantial justification under the EAJA even though the agency's decision was reversed as lacking in reasonable, substantial and probative evidence in the record." (citation omitted)). In this case, the Ninth Circuit determined that "neither of the reasons the ALJ gave for assigning little weight to Dr. Nolan's opinion were supported by substantial evidence." (Doc. 34-1 at 19). Thus, as the Ninth Circuit found the ALJ's decision to be lacking in "substantial evidence, " there is a "strong indication" that the Government's position was not "substantially justified" unless the case is "decidedly unusual." Thangaraja, 428 F.3d at 874. Rather than explain how this case meets this criteria, the Government focuses its argument entirely on the reasonableness of its actions. (Doc. 40 at 4-9). Although the Court agrees with the Government that record evidence supports the ALJ's decision to afford "little weight" to Dr. Nolan's opinion, the circumstances of this case do not warrant a finding that the case is "decidedly unusual." See Campbell, 736 F.3d at 869 (explaining that extrapolating medical records to make a decision about a past condition constitutes a "decidedly unusual case"). Consequently, because the Ninth Circuit held that the ALJ's decision was not supported by "substantial evidence, " the Court must award Plaintiff her attorneys' fees under the EAJA. See ...

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