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Warner v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

December 28, 2017

CHRISTOPHER LAMONT WARNER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          James R. Knepp, II United States Magistrate Judge

         Introduction

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), seeking $3, 022.25 in fees. (Doc. 21). Defendant, the acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), did not oppose the motion. (Doc. 22). For the reasons discussed below the undersigned grants the motion, but in the amount of $2, 901.05.

         Procedural Background

          Prior to the instant motion, on March 31, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) alleging disability as of February 17, 2014. (Tr. 206-11). Plaintiff's application was denied initially, and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 137-45; 149-53). Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 154-56). On October 19, 2015, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff appeared and testified. (Tr. 42-97). On December 3, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in which he found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 13-36). On November 28, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the hearing decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-7); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1455, 416.1481.

         Plaintiff then filed a complaint with United States District Court. (Doc. 1).[1] Following the Commissioner's Answer (Doc. 11), and filing of the administrative Transcript (Doc. 12), Plaintiff filed his brief on the merits (Doc. 15). In it, he alleged the ALJ: 1) failed to properly give good reasons for rejecting a treating psychiatrist's opinion, and 2) did not consider the combination of all of Plaintiff's impairments, rendering the residual functional capacity determination not based on substantial evidence. (Doc. 15). Two and one-half months later, the parties filed a joint motion to remand. (Doc. 18). The undersigned granted that motion, and remanded the case. (Docs. 19, 20).

         The Equal Access to Justice Act

         Under normal circumstances, each party is responsible for its own legal fees. Scarborough v. Principi, 541 U.S. 401, 404 (2004). However, because paying for one's own legal fees can make litigation cost prohibitive, the EAJA exists to encourage lay people to seek review of unreasonable government action without fear of the substantial cost that litigation can entail. The EAJA provides, in pertinent 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 (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)(A).

         In this case it is undisputed that Plaintiff is a prevailing party because this Court issued a sentence-four remand based on the parties' joint motion. Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 293, 301 (1993). Neither side contends that special circumstances make an award unjust. As such, Plaintiff is entitled to attorney's fees and additional expenses if the government's position was not substantially justified.[2]

         Substantial Justification

         The government's position is “substantially justified” if it had “a reasonable basis in both law and in fact” or was “justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 564-65 (1988). The government's “position” includes both the underlying action and the government's litigation position. 42 U.S.C. §2412(d)(2)(D); Delta Eng'g v. United States, 41 F.3d 259, 261 (6th Cir. 1994). The burden of showing substantial justification rests upon the agency. Scarborough v. Principi, 541 U.S. 401, 414-15 (2004).

         Here, Plaintiff argues the Commissioner's decision was not substantially justified. The Commissioner bears the burden of proving its position was substantially justified; she has not met that burden because she did not object to Plaintiff's motion. The Commissioner also agreed to a sentence-four remand. (Doc. 18). By agreeing to remand, and not objecting to the instant motion, the Commissioner essentially conceded her position below ...


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