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Rose v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 6, 2017

Nicholas Rose, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Michelle H. Burns United States Magistrate Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Nicholas Rose's Application for Award of Attorneys' Fees and Costs Under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”) (Doc. 23). After reviewing the administrative record and the arguments of the parties, the Court now issues the following ruling.

         BACKGROUND

         On November 6, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning August 1, 2013. His applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. A hearing was held on July 8, 2015, and the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         In his brief, Plaintiff contended that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly weigh medical source opinion evidence; (2) failing to provide valid reasons for discounting the opinions from the Department of Veteran Affairs (“VA”); and (3) failing to make a proper finding at step five of the sequential evaluation process.

         This Court, after reviewing the administrative record and the arguments of the parties, vacated the Commissioner's decision and remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings consistent with its Order. Although the Court found that the ALJ properly weighed the medical source opinion evidence related to Plaintiff's alleged impairments, and gave specific and legitimate reasons, based on substantial evidence in the record to support her findings, the ALJ erred by failing to articulate any persuasive, specific, and valid reasons for rejecting the VA's disability rating. See McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9thCir. 2002).

         According to the record, Plaintiff received a 100% disability rating from the VA with “total occupational and social impairment.” The evaluation discussed major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder documenting “feeling sad, isolating, lack for motivation, irritability, guilt, trouble sleeping.” The anxiety was described as “significant worry, variety of triggers, sweaty hands, increased heart rate, mind goes blank.” The VA agreed that “both occupational and social impairment are caused by both anxiety and depression” and established that the Global Assessment of Functioning is between 45 to 50.

         The ALJ gave “no weight” to the VA's 100% disability rating stating that the disability award documented in these letters is not supported by any explanation of the evidence. The VA, however, cited to a previous mental disorder disability benefits questionnaire and the service treatment record. Further, the VA file as a whole was full of mental health treatment for anxiety and depression.

         Furthermore, although the ALJ purported to have read and considered the VA's disability determination, the ALJ dismissed Plaintiff's “total occupational and social impairment” caused by anxiety and depression - by simply stating that “depression and anxiety interfere with the claimant's occupational and educational goals.” Finally, the ALJ stated for “reasons previously discussed, ” she gives “little weight” to an unknown evaluator.

         The ALJ completely failed to specify which “reasons previously discussed” applied to the VA's 100% disability rating.

         The Court additionally found that the error was not harmless because the ALJ's rejection of the VA disability rating was not “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1121-22 (9th Cir. 2012).

         A prevailing party in an action against the United States is entitled to an award of attorney fees and costs under the EAJA, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), unless the government's position was “substantially justified.” The government's position is substantially justified “if a reasonable person could think it correct, that is, if it has a reasonable basis in law and fact.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 566 n.2 (1988).

         Plaintiff is the prevailing party. Therefore, the issue before the Court is whether Defendant's position in opposing Plaintiff's appeal was “substantially justified.” Shafer v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 1067, 1071 (9th Cir. 2008).

         Under the EAJA, “substantial justification” means that “‘the government's position must have a reasonable basis in law and fact.'” Shafer, 518 F.3d at 1071 (quoting Corbin v. Apfel, 149 F.3d 1051, 1052 (9th Cir. 1998)). “Where ... the ALJ's decision was reversed on the basis of procedural errors, the question is not whether [Defendant's] position as to the merits of [Plaintiff's] disability claim was substantially justified. Rather, the relevant question is whether [Defendant's] decision ...


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