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Fultz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 10, 2019

D. Fultz, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DAVID G. CAMPBELL SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff has made an application to the Court for attorneys' fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. Doc. 19. The Commissioner opposes the motion. Doc. 21. The Court will grant the motion in part and reduce the award to exclude time spent on unsuccessful claims.

         I. Background.

         An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) denied Plaintiff's application for social security benefits, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Doc. 20-5 at 3. That decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. Id. at 2. Plaintiff then brought an action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On July 17, 2018, the Court ruled in Plaintiff's favor and remanded the case to re-weigh the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician. See Doc. 20-5 at 14.

         Plaintiff's attorney, Mark Caldwell, requests $10, 192.84 in attorneys' fees. See Doc. 22 at 10. This includes $9, 088.55 for hours he and contracted attorney Robin Larkin incurred on Plaintiff's appeal (Doc. 20-2 at 3), and $1, 104.29 for time spent on fee-request litigation. Doc. 22 at 10.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The EAJA provides:

Except as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses . . . incurred by that party in any civil action (other than cases sounding in tort), including proceedings for judicial review of agency action, brought by or against the United States in any court having jurisdiction of that 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). Under this provision, courts routinely award attorneys' fees to claimants who successfully challenge the Social Security Administration's denial of disability benefits. See, e.g., Tobeler v. Colvin, 749 F.3d 830 (9th Cir. 2014). Where a successful claimant seeks attorneys' fees, “[i]t is the government's burden to show that its position was substantially justified, ” id. at 832, or that special circumstances make an award unjust.

         III. Discussion.

         The Commissioner does not dispute that Plaintiff was a prevailing party in this case. Nor does the Commissioner argue that its position was substantially justified. Rather, the Commissioner argues that Plaintiff's position is unreasonable because (1) Plaintiff achieved only partial success; (2) Plaintiff's hours represent duplicative efforts by two attorneys; and (3) Plaintiff's hours contain records of excessive tasks that more experienced attorneys would not have performed. Doc. 21 at 2. The Commissioner requests that Plaintiff's fee request be reduced by fifty percent commensurate with Plaintiff's limited success in this Court. Id. Because the Commissioner addresses an across-the-board reduction to cover all of the argued insufficiencies in Plaintiff's fee request, the Court will address each of Commissioner's arguments before addressing any specific fee reductions.

         A. Legal Standard.

         The United States Supreme Court has identified twelve factors to consider when evaluating the reasonableness of an attorneys' fees request:

(1) the time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions; (3) the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly; (4) the preclusion of employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case; (5) the customary fee; (6) whether the fee is fixed or contingent; (7) time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances; (8) the amount involved and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorneys; (10) the ‘undesirability ...

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