United States District Court, D. Arizona
Michelle H. Bums United States Magistrate Judge.
before the Court is Plaintiff Bernard Laborin application for
attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act
(“EAJA”) (Doc. 40). After reviewing the arguments
of the parties, the Court now issues the following ruling.
filed applications for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income alleging disability beginning
August 8, 2008. His applications were denied initially and on
reconsideration. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing
before an administrative law judge. A hearing was held on
August 9, 2012, and the ALJ issued a decision finding that
Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's
decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff
then sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Court, after reviewing the administrative record and the
arguments of the parties, affirmed the decision of the ALJ.
Plaintiff then appealed the Court's decision to the Ninth
Circuit Court of Appeals.
October 11, 2017, the Ninth Circuit issued its Mandate,
finding that the ALJ's decision was not supported by
substantial evidence, and remanding this matter back to the
district court with instructions to remand to the
Commissioner for further proceedings. Specifically, the court
found: (1) the ALJ erred in giving treating physician Dr.
Tran's opinion “very little weight” without
analyzing the required factors; (2) the ALJ erred in
rejecting some of Laborin's symptom testimony; and (3)
the ALJ erred by not sufficiently explaining why
Laborin's lumbar spine impairment did not meet or
medically equal a Social Security Listing.
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). 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. See Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292,
“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. See 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, 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. See 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.”).
moves for an award of attorney's fees under the EAJA in
the amount of $20, 216.10. Defendant opposes Plaintiff's
request, arguing that the government's position was
undisputed that Plaintiff is the prevailing party. Therefore,
the issue before the Court is whether Defendant's
position in opposing Plaintiff's appeal was
“substantially justified.” Shafer v.
Astrue, 518 F.3d 1067, 1071 (9th Cir. 2008).
Having reviewed the parties' pleadings and the record in
this matter, the Court concludes that Defendant's
decision to defend the ALJ's determination was not
response, Defendant argues that, although the Ninth Circuit
did not agree, the Commissioner was substantially justified
since this Court “agreed with the Commissioner's
position, ” illustrating “that a reasonable
person could - and did - think that the Commissioner's
position was not ‘arbitrary, frivolous, unreasonable or
groundless.'” Defendant argues that this
Court's ruling, along with the fact that the Ninth
Circuit found that the ALJ did not err in discounting the lay
witness testimony of Plaintiff's wife and that an
immediate award of benefits was inappropriate, shows that the
Commissioner's position was substantially justified.
stated previously, the Ninth Circuit determined that the
ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence.
The ALJ's multiple errors in assessing Dr. Tran's
opinion, rejecting Plaintiff's credibility, and failing
to explain why Plaintiff's lumbar spine impairment did
not meet or medically equal a Social Security Listing, were
clear procedural errors and, as such, the Court cannot say
that the Commissioner's defense of the ALJ's findings
were substantially justified. See, e.g., Roe v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 651 Fed.Appx. 583, 585
(9th Cir. 2016); Corbin, 149 F.3d at 1053
(finding that “the government's defense of basic
and fundamental procedural errors” is “difficult
contends that this Court “agreed with the
Commissioner's position, ” demonstrating
“that a reasonable person could - and did - think that
the Commissioner's position was not ‘arbitrary,
frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.'” The Court
is not persuaded. Although it is proper to consider the
government's past successes when evaluating substantial
justification, see Meier v. Colvin, 727 F.3d 867,
873 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Lewis v.
Barnhart, 281 F.3d 1081, 1084 (9th Cir.
2002)), success at the district court level alone does not
make the government's position substantially justified
when, as in this case, the ALJ failed to (1) offer specific
and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial
evidence in the record for contradicting a treating
physician, or (2) offer clear and convincing reasons for
rejecting a claimant's credibility. Thus, the
Commissioner's success at the district court, without
more, fails to demonstrate that the government's position
is substantially justified. Therefore, Plaintiff is entitled
to reasonable attorney's fees under the EAJA.
Plaintiff is entitled to attorney's fees, the Court will
determine whether the requested fees are reasonable.
Plaintiff moves for an award of attorney's fees in the
amount of $20, 216.10. Along with his application,
Plaintiff's counsel has filed an Itemization of Services
and Affidavit indicating that the fee amount represents
103.40 hours of attorney time, 6.40 hours of paralegal time,
and costs associated with this case. Defendant has not
objected to the number of hours spent on this matter or to
the hourly rate. The Court finds that Plaintiff's request
for a total cumulative fee award of ...