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Owens v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 26, 2017

Lorrie Owens, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JAMES A. TEILBORG, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Lorrie Owens's Motion for Attorneys' Fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”). (“Motion, ” Doc. 27). Defendant, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, has filed her Response (Doc. 28). Having considered the parties' filings, the Court now rules on the Motion.

         I. Background

         Alan Owens applied for Social Security disability benefits in January 2010. (Doc. 24 at 1). The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) initially denied this claim, only to be reversed by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Appeals Council. (Id.). The ALJ denied Mr. Owens's benefits a second time in March 2014, but he died before that decision could be appealed. (Doc. 1 at 1-2). Plaintiff, Mr. Owens's surviving spouse, appealed the ALJ's decision to this court claiming: “1) the [ALJ] did not properly discredit the claimant's subjective symptom testimony; and 2) the ALJ did not properly discredit certain treating medical opinions.” (Doc. 25 at 1).

         The Court found three of the ALJ's six proffered reasons for discrediting claimant's reported symptoms were not supported by the evidence. (Id. at 3-5). These improper reasons included: (1) that “claimant had minimal treatment” and received only “routine, conservative, and non-emergency treatment”; (2) that “claimant's treatment was limited to conservative treatment and follow-up care, avoidance of caffeine and prescription medications”; and (3) that “Dr. Goodell, the claimant's neurologist reported . . . that if the claimant had a low stress environment he would be able to work.” (Id.).

         Also, the Court found that the ALJ gave potentially invalid reasons for not crediting the testimony of three of four medical sources. (Id. at 8-9). Furthermore, the Court found that this error “call[ed] into question the ultimate conclusion” and was therefore “not harmless.” (Id. at 9).

         Based on these reasons, the Court reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded for further proceedings. (Id.). After the reversal, Plaintiff filed the current Motion requesting attorneys' fees and costs under the EAJA. (Doc. 27). Defendant's Response states that they “ha[ve] no objection to [Plaintiff's] request and will defer to the Court's assessment of the matter.” (Doc. 28 at 1).

         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).

         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 quotation marks omitted)).

         III. Analysis

         Defendant does not oppose Plaintiff's request for attorneys' fees. (Doc. 28 at 1). The Court could “treat the government's non-opposition as constituting a failure to offer a basis for a finding of substantial justification and, thus, a failure to carry its burden of proof.” Gwaduri v. INS, 362 F.3d 1144, 1146 (9th Cir. 2004). However, the Court should exercise discretion in awarding fees under EAJA and “has an independent obligation to ensure that the request is reasonable.” Keyser v. Astrue, No. 08-1268-CL, 2012 WL 78461, at *3 (D. Or. Jan. 10, 2012); see also Webb v. Ada Cty., 195 F.3d 524, 527 (9th Cir. 1999) (recognizing that a district court ...


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