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Knudsen v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maine

July 31, 2015

WANDA KNUDSEN, Plaintiff
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM DECISION ON APPLICATION FOR ATTORNEY FEES

JOHN H. RICH III, Magistrate Judge.

The plaintiff seeks $5, 695.67 in attorney and paralegal fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), in connection with this Social Security benefits appeal. The defendant objects, contending that her position in the litigation was substantially justified. I grant the request in part, reducing the award to $4, 368.44.

The EAJA provides, in relevant part:

[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.

28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). The EAJA allows fee reimbursement to a prevailing party only for "reasonable fees and expenses of attorneys[.]" Id. § 2412(b). "[A] prevailing party that satisfies EAJA's other requirements may recover its paralegal fees from the Government at prevailing market rates." Richlin Sec. Serv. Co. v. Chertoff, 553 U.S. 571, 590 (2008). "The plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing the reasonableness of the rates and hours submitted in their application for fees." Mason v. Maine Dep't of Corr., 387 F.Supp.2d 57, 60 (D. Me. 2005).

I. Procedural Background

The plaintiff appealed to this court from the defendant's denial of her application for Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income benefits. Plaintiff's Itemized Statement of Errors ("Itemized Statement") at 1. After the parties consented to my presiding over the case, ECF No. 17, and oral argument, I ruled in favor of the plaintiff on one of the five issues raised in her itemized statement of errors. Memorandum Decision (ECF No. 19) at 10. This application for fees followed. EAJA Application for Fees and Expenses (ECF No. 21).

II. Discussion

A. Substantial Justification

The defendant contends that her position in this case was substantially justified. Defendant's Opposition to Plaintiff's EAJA Application for Fees and Expenses ("Opposition") (ECF No. 22) at 1. The issue upon which the plaintiff was successful was the insufficiency of the administrative law judge's discussion of the opinions of a treating physician. Memorandum Decision (ECF No. 19) at 9-11.

The plaintiff is the prevailing party in this action, and the defendant does not suggest otherwise. The defendant does not challenge any of the entries on the attorneys' itemization of the fees sought or the hourly rates applied in that document (ECF No. 21-1), although she does challenge the total number of hours claimed. The defendant bears the burden to demonstrate that her position was substantially justified. McDonald v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 884 F.2d 1468, 1475 (1st Cir. 1989).

The defendant's position was substantially justified if it had a reasonable basis in law and fact and was justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person. Id. The defendant's success before the administrative law judge is a factor to be considered in the substantial justification analysis. See, e.g., Garnica v. Astrue, 378 Fed.App'x 680, 682 (9th Cir. 2010); Burgos v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 3:09-cv-1216 (VLB), 2011 WL 1085623, at *3 (D. Conn. Mar. 18, 2011).

The defendant emphasizes language from Saysana v. Gillen, 614 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2010), in which a recipient of a writ of habeas corpus against Immigration and Customs Enforcement sought an award of attorney fees under the EAJA. Id. at 2. Noting that the government's position "can be substantially justified even if a court ultimately determines the agency's reading of the law was not correct[, ]" id. at 5 (citation omitted), the First Circuit held that an award of fees was not warranted where the issue upon which the plaintiff in that case ultimately succeeded was a novel one, on which there was little precedent. Id. at 6. That is not the case here.

The claim at issue in this case is a familiar one: that the administrative law judge failed to comply with Social Security Ruling 96-2p and 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2) and 416.927(d)(2) in his discussion of the opinions of a treating physician. The challenge to the sufficiency of such discussions is one that the plaintiffs' bar has raised in many cases, arguing that analyses were fatally flawed for their brevity and lack of specificity. In this case, the ...


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