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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

June 3, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


KATHERINE P. NELSON, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Rule 54(d)(2)(A) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, on the application by Plaintiff Brooklan Diann Smith for an award of attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412 (the "EAJA") (Docs. 23, 25), filed May 12, 2014, and the Commissioner's objection to her application (Doc. 26), filed May 27, 2014.

Upon consideration of all pertinent materials contained in this file, the application is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART, [1] and it is ORDERED that Plaintiff should receive a reasonable attorney's fee in the amount of $6, 015.59 under the EAJA for legal services rendered by her attorney in this Court. See Astrue v. Ratliff, ___ U.S. ___, 130 S.Ct. 2521, 2526 & 2526-27 (2010) ("Ratliff [] asserts that subsection (d)(1)(A)'s use of the verb award' renders § 2412(d) fees payable directly to a prevailing party's attorney[.]... We disagree.... The plain meaning of the word award' in subsection (d)(1)(A) is [] that the court shall give or assign by... judicial determination' to the prevailing party' (here, Ratliff's client Ree) attorney's fees in the amount sought and substantiated under, inter alia, subsection (d)(1)(B).... The fact that the statute awards to the prevailing party fees in which her attorney may have a beneficial interest or a contractual right does not establish that the statute awards' the fees directly to the attorney. For the reasons we have explained, the statute's plain text does the opposite-it awards' the fees to the litigant[.]"); cf. Brown v. Astrue, 271 Fed.App'x 741, 743 (10th Cir. Mar. 27, 2008) ("The district court correctly held that Mr. Brown's assignment of his right in the fees award to counsel does not overcome the clear EAJA mandate that the award is to him as the prevailing party, and the fees belong to him. Thus, the district court correctly declined to award the fees directly to counsel.").

I. Discussion

A. Procedural Background

On February 10, 2014, this Court entered a Rule 58 judgment reversing and remanding this cause to the Commissioner of Social Security pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings. (Doc. 22; see also Doc. 21, memorandum opinion and order.) In the application for an award of attorney's fees under the EAJA (Doc. 23), filed on May 12, 2014, Plaintiff requests attorney's fees in the amount of $6, 037.38 to compensate her counsel for the time (32.25 hours) spent representing her before this Court as of the date of the filing of the fee application ( see generally id. ). And in her objection to the application, the Commissioner does not contest the reasonableness of the requested attorney's fees; she contends instead that no attorney's fees should be awarded in this matter because her position in this case was substantially justified. ( See generally Doc. 26.)

B. Substantial Justification and Prevailing Party

The Equal Access to Justice Act requires a district court to "award to a prevailing party... 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..., 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) (emphasis added).

While "[s]ubstantially justified' is one of the myriad phrases in the law that has no precise or fixed definition[, t]he Supreme Court has said that it means justified in substance or in the main.'" Grieves v. Astrue, 600 F.Supp.2d 995, 999 (N.D. Ill. 2009) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988)); see id. ("A position that is substantially justified' must have a reasonable basis both in law and in fact.'") (quoting Pierce, 487 U.S. at 565); cf. Golembiewski v. Barnhart, 382 F.3d 721, 724 (7th Cir. 2004) (a position is substantially justified if a "reasonable person could believe the position was correct").

EAJA decisions necessarily involve exercises of discretion because of the sheer impracticability of formulating a rule of decision in such cases. Questions that arise under the Act, like many that arise in litigation generally, are not amenable to regulation by rule because they involve multifarious, fleeting, special, narrow facts that utterly resist generalization-at least, for the time being.

Grieves, 600 F.Supp.2d at 999 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted and other modifications to original).

It is also essential to recall that "a position can be justified even though it is not correct, " Pierce, 487 U.S. at 566, n.2, and "[the government] could take a position that is substantially justified, yet lose [on the merits]." Id. at 569. Analysis of questions of substantial justification must take into account the government's position in the underlying action and the litigation posture it took while defending the validity of that action in court. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(D). But, substantial justification should not be confused with the "substantial evidence" standard that applies to a court's initial review of the case. Indeed, the Supreme Court has cautioned that consideration of a fee petition "should not result in a second major litigation.'" Pierce, 487 U.S. at 563. Thus, an EAJA petition requires the court to revisit the legal and factual circumstances of this case from a different perspective-the elusive standard of substantial justification-than it did in reviewing the record on the initial go-round to determine whether there was substantial evidence to support the conclusion.

Id. at 1000 (internal citations modified and some omitted); but see Cockerham v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., CIV.A. No. 87-1276, 1990 WL 11355, at *3 (E.D. La. Jan. 31, 1990) ("[T]he corresponding definition of substantially justified' used in the EAJA means to be justified in substance or in the main... the action must be justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person, and must have a reasonable basis in both law and fact.' Clearly, definitions of the terms substantial evidence' and substantially justified' are analogous; a reasonable mind must conclude that when the [Commissioner]'s position was not based upon substantial evidence, it cannot be found substantially justified.") (quoting Pierce, 487 U.S. at 565); Scott v. Barnhart, No. 99 C 4651, 2003 WL 1524624, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 21, 2003) ("When a court finds [] a lack of connection between the evidence in the record and an ALJ's conclusion, it is appropriate to find the Commissioner's position not substantially justified.") (citations omitted).

On appeal to this Court, Smith provided three reasons for why she believes the Commissioner's decision to deny her benefits was in error (that is, not supported by substantial evidence). After a careful review of the record, the Court determined that Smith's second reason-that the Commissioner's decision should be reserved because the ALJ erred by substituting her own opinion in place of the opinion of Dr. Estock- alone precluded a finding that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly, necessitated remand for that reason alone. Thus, the Court did not adjudicate, nor was there any reason for the Court to adjudicate, Smith's first and third reasons why she believes the Commissioner's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., Pendley v. Heckler, 767 F.2d 1561, 1563 (11th Cir. 1985) ("Because the misuse of the expert's testimony alone warrants reversal, ' we do not consider the appellant's other claims."); accord ...

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