United States District Court, D. Arizona
A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge
before the Court is Plaintiff Armentha Hooker's
Application for Attorney Fees under the Equal Access to
Justice Act (“EAJA”), (the “Motion, ”
Doc. 31). Defendant Acting Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) has
filed her Response, (Doc. 32), to which Plaintiff has filed
her Reply, (Doc. 36). Having considered the parties'
filings, the Court now rules on the Motion.
filed an application for supplemental Social Security
benefits on behalf of her minor child, Z.H. Plaintiff claims
Z.H. has had disabilities beginning May 26, 2009, (Tr.
253-59), including attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. (See Tr.
253, 390, 401, 407-18, 430, 432, 443, 449). The application
was denied initially as well as on reconsideration, (Tr.
127-28), and Plaintiff requested a hearing by an
administrative law judge (the “ALJ”).
the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Z.H. was
not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 16-29,
36-77). Plaintiff's request for an Appeals Council review
of the ALJ's decision was denied, making the ALJ's
decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5);
see 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a) (2016). Plaintiff
then appealed to this Court, which affirmed the decision of
the ALJ. (Doc. 19). Plaintiff finally appealed to the Ninth
Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Ninth Circuit”),
which vacated and remanded the matter to this Court. (Doc.
28-1 at 1-5). The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the ALJ erred
when she determined that Edwin Perez, M.D., a psychiatrist,
was not the child's treating physician because he had not
seen the child often enough before he rendered his opinion.
(Id. at 2). As a result, the ALJ did not accord Dr.
Perez's opinion the “substantial (often
controlling) weight” it may have deserved.
(Id. at 2-3). Thus, this error “seriously
affected” the ALJ's conclusions. (Id. at
2). After the remand, Plaintiff filed this Motion.
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 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). To be substantially justified, a
position 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).
analyzing the government's position for substantial
justification, a Court should focus its inquiry on the issue
that was the basis for remand and not the merits of the
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
prevailing party after winning remand from the Ninth Circuit,
Plaintiff moves for an award of attorneys' fees and costs
under the EAJA in the amount of $17, 292.07. (Doc. 31 at
1-2). The Commissioner opposes Plaintiff's request,
arguing that the Government's position was substantially
justified, (Doc. 32 at 4-7), and, alternatively, the
requested dollar amount is unreasonable and should be
reduced, (id. at 7-9).
Commissioner claims the Government's position was
substantially justified for two reasons: first, the ALJ's
decision to assign “little weight” to Dr.
Perez's assessment was supported by the record,
(id. at 4); second, because this Court initially
affirmed the ALJ's findings, it demonstrates that
“a reasonable person could-and, in fact, did-think that
the Commissioner's position was correct, ”
(id. at 4-5).
Commissioner first argues that the ALJ's decision to
assign “little weight” to Dr. Perez's
assessment of Z.H. was supported by the record. (Id.
at 4). Particularly, the Commissioner claims that the ALJ was
justified in assigning little weight to Dr. Perez's
assessment because: (1) the record “as a whole did not
support” his opinion, (id. at 5-6); (2)
“Dr. Perez's own treatment notes did not support
his opinion, ” (id.); and (3) “Dr.Perez
had only seen Z.H. [once] prior to authoring his
opinion” which ultimately “cast[ed] doubt on the
persuasiveness of his opinion as a ...