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Garcia v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 25, 2019

Juan Carlos Garcia, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Leslie A. Bowman, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Pending before the court is the plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), filed on August 29, 2019. (Doc. 22)

         The plaintiff filed this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner for Social Security pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In an order issued on June 7, 2019, this court reversed the Commissioner’s final decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The plaintiff moves for attorneys’ fees in the amount of $9, 690.47 pursuant to the EAJA, 28 U.S.C. § 2412. (Doc. 22); (Doc. 25, p. 9) The defendant filed a response arguing that the motion for attorney’s fees should be denied because the government’s position was substantially justified and, in the alternative, that the fees requested are not reasonable. (Doc. 24)

         Discussion

         Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA):

[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 . . . 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.

Shafer v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 1067, 1071 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A)) (emphasis added). The phrase “fees and other expenses” includes reasonable attorneys’ fees. Shafer, 518 F.3d at 1071.

         The plaintiff in this case argues that attorney’s fees in the amount of $9, 690.47 should be awarded. (Doc. 22); (Doc. 25, p. 9) The Commissioner argues the motion should be denied because, among other things, the government’s position was “substantially justified.” (Doc. 24)

         “‘Substantial justification’ under the EAJA means that the government’s position must have a reasonable basis in law and fact.” Shafer, 518 F.3d at 1071. “The government’s position must be substantially justified at each stage of the proceedings.” Id. “It is the government’s burden to show that its position was substantially justified.” Tobeler v. Colvin, 749 F.3d 830, 832 (9th Cir. 2014).

         In this case, the court reversed the decision of the administrative law judge (ALJ) because he “reject[ed] the claimant’s testimony about the severity of [his] symptoms” without “offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” (Doc. 20, pp. 8-9) (citing Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 493 (9th Cir. 2015)). The ALJ summarized the medical evidence in support of his residual functional capacity finding, but he failed to identify specifically which of the claimant’s statements he disbelieved and why. (Doc. 20, p. 9) This was error in violation of controlling Ninth Circuit law. See Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d at 493.

         The Ninth Circuit considers a procedural error of this type to be a “basic and fundamental” error. Shafer, 518 F.3d at 1071-72 (discussing the ALJ’s failure to provide “clear and convincing” reasons for discounting a treating physician’s opinion). Absent special circumstances, “the defense of basic and fundamental errors . . . is difficult to justify.” Corbin v. Apfel, 149 F.3d 1051, 1053 (9th Cir. 1998). Accordingly, this court finds that the Commissioner’s decision to defend the ALJ’s error here was not substantially justified. See, e.g., Shafer v. Astrue, 518 F.3d 1067, 1071 (9th Cir. 2008); Solomon v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 2019 WL 1599419, at *3 (E.D. Cal. 2019) (Where the ALJ’s “failure to provide legally adequate reasons for rejecting the testimony of the claimant and the third-par[t]y witnesses was contrary to controlling law in this circuit, ” the Government’s position was not “substantially justified.”).

         The Commissioner further argues that the fees requested by the claimant are not reasonable. The court considers the Commissioner’s arguments in turn.

         First, the Commissioner objects to counsel’s use of “block billing.” Block billing is a practice in which the practitioner reports a single block of time and lists a number of tasks performed during that time. Block billing is disfavored because it is difficult to determine how much time was spent on each task, which is problematic if some of the tasks are not compensable.

         The Commissioner objects specifically to counsel’s entry on October 4, 2018 for 3.5 hours for “conference with a staff member, reviewing the ALJ’s decision and exhibits, conducting legal research, drafting the Complaint, and emailing the office for an unknown reason.” (Doc. 24, pp. 8-9) He does not, however, explain why he finds this particular entry objectionable beyond his general argument that block billing is disfavored. The court ...


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