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Hooker v. Commissioner Of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 13, 2017

Armentha Hooker, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          James A. Teilborg Senior United States District Judge

         Pending 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.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff 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)[1], 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”).

         Following 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.

         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 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). 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).

         When 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 marks omitted)).

         III. Analysis

         As the 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).

         A. Substantial Justification

         The 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).

         The 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 ...


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