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Schwab v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 14, 2017

Kimberly Lynn Schwab, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Kimberly Lynn Schwab's Motion for Attorneys' Fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”). (“Motion, ” Doc. 23). Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, has filed a response, (Doc. 24), to which Plaintiff has filed a reply, (Doc. 25). Having considered the parties' filings, the Court now rules on the Motion.

         I. Background

         In May of 2010, Plaintiff injured her lower back while lifting a table at work. (Doc. 17 at 2). Over the next few years, Plaintiff experienced difficulty maintaining even sedentary employment, and she “ha[d] not engaged in substantial gainful activity- including employment-since May 17, 2011.” (Id.). On September 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed a claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). (Id. at 3). The SSA denied the claim, and Plaintiff appealed to an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), who also denied the claim and affirmed that decision upon reconsideration. (Id. at 3-4). The SSA Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 14, 2015 prompting her to appeal to federal court on June 12, 2015. (Id. at 4).

         On appeal, this Court reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded for further proceedings. (Id. at 28). The Court affirmed the ALJ's decision on all issues except the finding that Dr. Tromp's opinion be given “no weight.” (Id. at 23-26). On that issue, the Court found that while the ALJ mentioned multiple reasons to discount Dr. Tromp's opinion, the decision to do so ultimately relied on the fact that Dr. Tromp's examination was arranged “through attorney referral” and that this “permeate[d] the finding to such a degree that the Court [found] that it constitutes the sole basis for rejecting Dr. Tromp's opinion, which is impermissible.” (Id. at 25-26).

         After the reversal, Defendant filed a Motion to Amend/Correct, (Doc. 19), which the Court denied, (Doc. 22). Plaintiff then filed the current Motion requesting attorneys' fees and costs under the EAJA. (Doc. 23).

         II. Legal Standard

         The EAJA allows “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.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A) (2012). An applicant for disability benefits becomes a prevailing party for the purposes of the EAJA if the denial of her benefits is reversed and remanded regardless of whether disability benefits are ultimately awarded. Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 300-02 (1993).

         The “position of the United States” includes both its litigating position and the “action or failure to act by the agency upon which the civil action is based.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(D). For this position to be substantially justified, it must be “justified in substance or in the main-that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (holding that substantially justified means having a reasonable basis both in law and fact). In EAJA actions, the government bears the burden of proving that its position was substantially justified. Gonzales v. Free Speech Coalition, 408 F.3d 613, 618 (9th Cir. 2005). However, “the government's failure to prevail does not raise a presumption that its position was not substantially justified.” Kali v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 329, 332 (9th Cir. 1988).

         When analyzing the government's position for substantial justification, the Court's inquiry should be focused on the issue that was the basis for remand and not the merits of Plaintiff's claim in its entirety or the ultimate disability determination. Flores v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 562, 569 (9th Cir. 2008); see also Corbin v. Apfel, 149 F.3d 1051, 1052 (9th Cir. 1998) (“The government's position must be substantially justified at each stage of the proceedings.” (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

         III. Analysis

         As the prevailing party after winning remand from this Court, Plaintiff moves for an award of attorneys' fees and costs under the EAJA in the amount of $7, 402.30. Defendant opposes Plaintiff's request, arguing that the government's position was substantially justified, (Doc. 24 at 5), and, alternatively, the requested amount is unreasonable and should be reduced, (id. at 6).

         A. Substantial Justification

         Defendant argues that the government's position was substantially justified because it was “reasonably based in both law and fact” and that “one good reason is sufficient to affirm the decision.” (Id. at 5). Defendant also asserts that the government's position met the substantial justification standard because there was a ...

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