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Young v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 28, 2017

William Thomas Young, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff William Young has filed a motion for attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). The motion is fully briefed and no party has requested oral argument. The Court will deny Plaintiff's motion.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff applied for disability and supplemental security insurance benefits on September 30, 2010, alleging disability beginning August 20, 2010. Doc. 14 at 1. After a hearing on April 12, 2012, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) issued an opinion on April 25, 2012, finding that Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments but was not disabled. The Appeals Council vacated and remanded the ALJ's decision. A second hearing was held on July 8, 2014. Following this hearing, the ALJ issued a second decision on October 2, 2014 holding that Plaintiff did not suffer from a severe impairment or combination of impairments and thus was not disabled. A request for review was denied by the Appeals Council and the ALJ's opinion became the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff filed a complaint with this Court asking for review of the Commissioner's decision. Doc. 1. The Court found that the ALJ erred by concluding that Plaintiff did not have a “severe” medically determinable impairment at step two of the disability assessment process. Doc. 14 at 7. The Court reversed the agency's decision and remanded with instructions to review the record as a whole and issue a new decision.

         II. Legal Standard.

         Under the EAJA, the Court must award attorney's fees to a prevailing party unless the United States shows that its position was “substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A); see Gutierrez v. Barnhart, 274 F.3d 1255, 1258 (9th Cir. 2001); Flores v. Shalala, 49 F.3d 562, 567 (9th Cir. 1995). In this case, Plaintiff is a prevailing party because the final administrative judgment denying his application for benefits was reversed and remanded for further consideration. Gutierrez, 274 F.3d at 1257.

         III. Was the Commissioner's Position Substantially Justified?

         The Supreme Court has held that a position may be substantially justified “if it has a reasonable basis in fact and law.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 566 n.2 (1988). The Ninth Circuit has provided this additional explanation:

The test for whether the government is substantially justified is one of reasonableness. Substantially justified does not mean justified to a high degree, but rather justified in substance or in the main-that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person. Put another way, substantially justified means there is a dispute over which reasonable minds could differ.

Gonzales v. Free Speech Coal., 408 F.3d 613, 618 (9th Cir. 2005) (citations and quotation marks omitted).

         In deciding this case, the Court found a tension between the de minimis standard used to evaluate impairments at step two and Ninth Circuit case law instructing that reviewing courts should “determine whether the ALJ had substantial evidence to find that the medical evidence clearly established that [the claimant] did not have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments” at step two. Doc. 17 at 3 (quoting Doc. 14 at 4 (quoting Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2005))). The Court observed that the standard of review could be applied in two ways: the district court could ask (1) whether there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's finding that non-severity at step two is clearly established; or (2) whether there is evidence in the record that clears the de minimis standard. Doc. 14 at 5. The Court found that the Ninth Circuit had adopted the second approach, and that a court must overturn an ALJ's finding of no severe impairment if the record “includes evidence of problems sufficient to pass the de minims threshold of step two.” Webb, 433 F.3d at 687.

         The Court found that the administrative record in this case contained such evidence. Doc. 14 at 6. The Court also found, however, that the ALJ's 2014 decision “‘include[d] a careful and thorough examination of the medical record' and was ‘supported by at least three doctors . . . all of whom found Plaintiffs impairments to be mild.'” Doc. 17 at 3 (quoting Doc. 14 at 6).

         Given this state of the record and the uncertainty the Court found in Ninth Circuit law on the de minimis standard, the Court concludes that the correctness of the ALJ's decision in this case is a question on which reasonable minds could differ. Applying the reasonableness standard discussed above, therefore, the Court concludes that the ...


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