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Anderson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 3, 2016

Roger Burke Anderson, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          CHARLES R. PYLE United States Magistrate Judge.

         On September 30, 2014, the Court filed an Order remanding this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. (Doc. 32, Order). Plaintiff through counsel has filed a Motion for Attorney Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”) (28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)) (Doc. 36, EAJA Motion) and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 37). Defendant has filed an Objection to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney Fees (Doc. 38, Objection), and Plaintiff has filed an EAJA Reply Brief (Doc. 39, EAJA Reply). Plaintiff's attorney also has filed a Motion for Attorney Fees Under 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) (Doc. 40, § 406(b) Motion) and Brief in Support (Doc. 41), and Defendant has filed a Response (Doc. 42). This case is before the Magistrate Judge based on the parties' consent. (Doc. 23).

         I. Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees Under the EAJA

         In the EAJA Motion, Plaintiff seeks $6, 223.43 in attorney's fees. (EAJA Motion at 1). Plaintiff has submitted the affidavits of the three attorneys who worked on the case and itemized statements showing the attorneys' time on the case as 33.2 hours. (Doc. 37 at 7-8 & Ex. B, C & D). In the EAJA Reply, Plaintiff makes a supplemental request for $760.24 regarding four hours of additional attorney time for preparing the EAJA Reply, resulting in a cumulative total request of $6, 983.67. (EAJA Reply at 10-11).

         Defendant contends in the Objection that the Commissioner's decision was substantially justified. Defendant asserts that, if the Court awards attorney fees, any award should be made payable to Plaintiff rather than to Plaintiff's counsel based on Astrue v. Ratliff, 560 U.S. 586 (2010), subject to offset under the Treasury Offset Program.

         Whether Plaintiff is Entitled to an Award of Attorney's Fees

         The EAJA provides that a prevailing party in a civil suit against the federal government shall be awarded attorney's fees unless the court finds that the government's position was substantially justified or that special circumstances make the award unjust. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). Defendant does not dispute Plaintiff's prevailing party status or contend that special circumstances make the award unjust. Defendant contends that the government's position was substantially justified.

         To meet the “substantially justified” standard under the EAJA, “the government must advance a position that is ‘justified in substance or in the main - that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.'” Le v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 1200, 1201 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Marolf, 277 F.3d 1156, 1161 (9th Cir. 2002)). “[T]he government's position must have a reasonable basis in law and fact” and “be substantially justified at each stage of the proceedings.” Shafer v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 1067, 1071 (9th Cir. 2008). The court's inquiry is limited to the issues that led to remand. Hardisty v. Astrue, 592 F.3d 1072, 1078 (9th Cir. 2010). The Commissioner has the burden to show that its position was substantially justified or that special circumstances exist to make an award unjust. Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 1255, 1258 (9th Cir. 2001). Defendant contends her position was substantially justified, that is, reasonable in law and fact, even though the Court found that remand was necessary.

         When deciding the merits, the Court found that the opinion expressed by Plaintiff's treating physiatrist Jon Ostrowski, M.D., had been improperly discounted by the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Dr. Ostrowski had opined that Plaintiff could not continue working as a dentist due to degenerative arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and chronic neck problems. (Order at 5). The ALJ instead credited the findings of non-examining state agency Doctors Kurtin and Falhberg who found that Plaintiff was not precluded from performing a significant range of light work. (Id.). In the present Objection, Defendant agues that the ALJ reasonably contrasted the limitations expressed by Dr. Ostrowski with those of Doctors Kurtin and Falhberg. (Objection at 5-7). The Court found, however, that Defendant cited no authority in arguing that the ALJ only needed to acknowledge that Dr. Ostrowski was a treating physician in failing to reference him as a specialist, that the ALJ failed to state specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting Dr. Ostrowski's opinion, and Defendant argued grounds on which the ALJ could have rejected Dr . Ostrowski's opinion but did not. (Order at 8). The Court found that Plaintiff had “correctly note[d] [that] it was neither logical nor reasonable for the ALJ at step four to reject Dr. Ostrowski's specific opinions relevant to the performance of Plaintiff's past work as a dentist on the grounds that the treating physician did not opine that Plaintiff could not perform any activity at all.” (Order at 10). The Court further found as an “unsound analysis” the ALJ's finding that the State agency reviewers determined that the exertional level generally performed by a dentist is light which Plaintiff is not precluded from performing. “The opinion of a non-examining physician cannot by itself constitute substantial evidence that justifies the rejection of the opinion of either an examining physician or a treating physician.” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 831 (9th Cir. 1995). Finally, the ALJ's comment that Dr. Ostrowski's opinions were inconsistent with Dr. Ostrowski's observation that Plaintiff did not wish to pursue additional pain medication or more aggressive treatment, or that Plaintiff had reported not taking pain medication regularly, was not an appropriate standard for interpreting or rejecting Dr. Ostrowski's opinion as to Plaintiff's existing impairments. (Order at 10-11).

         Defendant argues in her Objection that the ALJ reasonably concluded that Plaintiff's daily activities contradicted his claims of debilitating impairment. (Objection at 8). In determining that remand for further proceedings was appropriate, the Court noted that a reassessment of Dr. Ostrowski's opinion will impact the ALJ's existing credibility finding. (Order at 12). Defendant argues in her Objection that the ALJ properly considered the lay testimony. (Objection at 8-9). However, the Court noted that Defendant “conced[ed] that lay testimony cannot be rejected solely because it is unsupported by the medical evidence.” (Order at 15).

         The government's defense of “basic and fundamental errors” cannot be considered as substantially justified. Shafer, 518 F.3d at 1071-72 (holding, inter alia, that it was legal error to discredit claimant's testimony without giving clear and convincing reasons and to reject a treating physician's opinion without providing adequate reasons for doing so, and that the Commissioner was not substantially justified in defending it). Because of the ALJ's several fundamental errors, Defendant's position was not substantially justified.

         Reasonableness of the Attorney Fees Request

         Plaintiff's attorney fees request is based on 33.2 hours of attorney time at the 2013 and 2014 hourly rates that correspond to the rates calculated by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. (EAJA Mem. at 7). Defendant has not objected to the hours of attorney time or to the hourly rate. The Court finds that Plaintiff's request for a total cumulative fee award of $6, 983.67, which includes the attorney time and fee amount for preparing the EAJA Reply, is reasonable. Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney Fees under the EAJA will be granted.

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