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Heggem v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 8, 2016

Neil M. Heggem, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Neil M. Heggem’s motion for attorneys’ fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”). (Doc. 33). The Court now rules on the motion.

         I. Background

         On June 24, 2013, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Plaintiff’s request for social security benefits. (Doc. 13 at 1). The Social Security Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ’s decision on August 31, 2013. (Id.) After Plaintiff filed an appeal for judicial review of the ALJ’s decision, this Court affirmed the ALJ’s decision. (Doc. 24). On March 23, 2015, Plaintiff filed an appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit challenging this Court’s affirmance of the ALJ’s decision. (Doc. 26). On June 1, 2016, the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded for supplemental proceedings upon the Commissioner’s request for voluntary remand. (Doc. 30).

         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).

         When awarding attorneys’ fees under the EAJA, the Court should reimburse the prevailing party only for those fees which are reasonably expended by that party’s counsel. See 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A). The prevailing party bears the burden of proving the reasonableness of his request through sufficiently detailed accounts of hours expended on particular tasks so that the Court can evaluate his application. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983); see Neil v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 495 F. App’x 845, 846 (9th Cir. 2012) (“A fee applicant should maintain billing records in a manner that enables a reviewing court to easily identify the hours reasonably expended.” (quotation omitted)). Generally, if the Court reduces a fee application it must provide a reason, however, “a district court can impose a reduction of up to 10 percent-a ‘haircut’-based purely on the exercise of its discretion and without more specific explanation.” Costa v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 690 F.3d 1132, 1135 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Moreno v. City of Sacramento, 534 F.3d 1106, 1111 (9th Cir. 2008)).

         III. Analysis

         Because the Commissioner concedes that her position was not substantially justified, see (Doc. 34 at 1), Plaintiff is entitled to an award of his reasonable attorneys’ fees pursuant to the EAJA.

         As to the reasonableness of Plaintiff’s fee request, the Commissioner argues that Plaintiff should only be reimbursed for fees related to legal work and not fees involving clerical or secretarial work. (Doc. 34). The Commissioner identifies several instances in Plaintiff’s itemized statement of attorney hours in which Plaintiff’s counsel billed for “filing and docketing pleadings, receiving and/or reviewing notices or standard orders, and filing extensions of time.” (Id. at 3). The Commissioner further points out that Plaintiff’s counsel “block billed” on multiple occasions, “making it difficult to evaluate the reasonableness of the time entries on their face.” (Id.) As a result, the Commissioner requests that Plaintiff’s fee application be reduced “by at least $665.00 to account for clerical time that cannot be billed at an attorney rate.” (Id. at 3-4).

         In reply, Plaintiff asserts that the Commissioner’s opposition to his motion for attorneys’ fees “is a waste of judicial resources” and suggests that the Court “should not opt to get involved in such minutia.” (Doc. 37 at 2). Plaintiff posits-without citing to any legal authority-that his “EAJA petition should have proceeded unopposed simply due to the amount in controversy.” (Id.) Accordingly, Plaintiff refused to “go into detail over every line item put in issue by the agency” because doing so would “not [be] a good use of the Court’s time.” (Id.) Plaintiff also postulates that “[f]ull briefing [on a motion for attorneys’ fees under the EAJA] is not a good use of resources, and the lack of full briefing is not a reflection of a lack of merit.” (Id. at 3). Ultimately, Plaintiff contends that should the Court reduce the amount of requested fees, it should “split the disputed amount between the parties” rather than “combing the record.” (Id.)

         Notwithstanding Plaintiff’s advice to the contrary, the Court “combed through the record” as is required for all fee applications brought pursuant to the EAJA. See, e.g., Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433 (stating that a district court has an independent duty to determine whether an attorneys’ fee award is reasonable); Moreno, 534 F.3d at 1111 (“A district court . . . awards only the fee that it deems reasonable.”). This task was not as daunting as Plaintiff inferred, as the ...

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