United States District Court, D. Arizona
A. TEILBORG, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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).
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.).
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).
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).
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).
“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).
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
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