United States District Court, D. Arizona
Diana M. Mendoza, Plaintiff,
Michael J. Astrue, et al., Defendants.
A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge
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.
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).
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).
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).
Whether Plaintiff is entitled to an Award of Fees under the
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).
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).
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 ...