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Houston v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Orangeburg Division

June 29, 2015

Christine Houston, Plaintiff,
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER AND OPINION

Plaintiff Christine Houston (“Plaintiff”) filed this action seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). (ECF No. 1.) The court accepted in part and rejected in part the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation (“Report”), reversing and remanding the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. (ECF No. 47.)

This matter is before the court on Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorney’s Fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412, seeking attorney’s fees in the amount of $9, 843.10 and costs in the amount of $350.00 for a total of $10, 193.10. (ECF No. 49 at 1.) For the reasons set forth below, the court GRANTS Plaintiff’s Motion for Attorney’s Fees and awards fees of $9, 505.97 and costs of $350.00 for a total of $9, 855.97.

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND TO THE PENDING MOTION

On February 5, 2009, Plaintiff sustained a complicated fracture of the left knee and tibia when a car hit her. (ECF No. 6-7 at 12-14.) As a result of her injuries, Plaintiff underwent numerous surgeries and months of intense physical therapy. (ECF Nos. 6-7 at 12-14, 25-30, 6-8 at 14-53, 7-2 at 77-85, 103-105, 7-3 at 27-38.) Plaintiff also had a pre-existing affective mental disorder, which allegedly worsened after her injury. (ECF Nos. 6-2 at 60-61, 6-7 at 92-99, 7-2 at 77-85, 103-105, 7-3 at 27-38.)

Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on July 1, 2009. (ECF No. 6-5 at 2-11.) This application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff’s hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) resulted in a finding that she was not disabled. (ECF Nos. 6-4 at 2-5, 13-16, 6-2 at 26-77.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on August 8, 2012, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. (ECF No. 6-2 at 2-7.)

On October 2, 2012, Plaintiff commenced this action to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision denying Plaintiff’s claim for DIB. (ECF No. 1.) The Magistrate Judge’s Report found that (1) there was no basis for remanding the case for further fact-finding regarding the new evidence submitted by Dr. Tavel to the Appeals Council; (2) the ALJ’s evaluation of concentration and attention limitations and the ALJ’s credibility findings were supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the Commissioner’s final decision should be reversed and remanded on the ground that the ALJ failed to consider the impact of frequent medical treatment on Plaintiff’s ability to engage in substantial gainful employment for the 18-month period following her accident. (ECF No. 35 at 9-18.) The court accepted in part and rejected in part the Report, reversing the final decision of the Commissioner denying Plaintiff’s DIB and remanding the case for further proceedings. (ECF No. 47 at 11.) The court adopted the Report’s recommendation to remand to the ALJ to consider the effect medical treatments had on Plaintiff’s ability to engage in substantial gainful employment for the 18 months following her accident and to consider the appropriateness of a closed period of disability. (Id. at 9.) The court also adopted the Report’s findings that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s evaluation of Plaintiff’s mental functioning and credibility. (Id. at 10-11.) However, the court disagreed with the Report on the conclusion that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s decision notwithstanding Dr. Tavel’s new opinion, and remanded to the ALJ to specifically address Plaintiff’s need to elevate her leg in the context of the vocational expert’s testimony. (Id. at 10.)

Plaintiff filed this Motion for Attorney’s Fees on April 30, 2014. (ECF No. 49.) The Commissioner responded in opposition on May 16, 2014 (ECF No. 50), and Plaintiff replied on June 3, 2014 (ECF No. 54).

II. LEGAL STANDARD AND ANALYSIS

A. Motions for Attorneys’ Fees, Costs, and Expenses under the EAJA

The EAJA allows for a party who prevails in litigation against the United States to be awarded attorneys’ fees and costs upon timely petition, as long as the Commissioner’s position was not “substantially justified” and no special circumstances make such an award unjust. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1); see Crawford v. Sullivan, 935 F.2d 655, 656 (4th Cir. 1991). In evaluating a request for attorneys’ fees and costs pursuant to the EAJA, the Commissioner bears the burden of proving that the agency’s position was substantially justified, and to meet that burden, the Commissioner must establish that the agency’s position has a reasonable basis in both law and fact. Thompson v. Sullivan, 980 F.2d 280, 281 (4th Cir. 1992). “In other words, favorable facts will not rescue the [Commissioner] from a substantially unjustified position on the law; likewise, an accurate recital of law cannot excuse a substantially unjustified position on the facts.” Id.

The standard to be applied in determining whether the Commissioner was “substantially justified” for purposes of determining whether award of attorneys’ fees under the EAJA is warranted, is whether there was arguably substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s position, not whether there was some evidence to support the position. Anderson v. Heckler, 756 F.2d 1011, 1013 (4th Cir. 1984). Where the Commissioner’s position was a result of the failure to perform a certain analysis required by the law and its regulations, the Commissioner’s position was not substantially justified. Etheredge v. Astrue, C/A No. 4:08-3167-SB, 2010 WL 2926171, at *1 (D.S.C. July 23, 2010) (citing Randolph v. Sullivan, 738 F.Supp. 305, 306 (CD. Ill. 1990)).

B. The Parties’ Arguments

Plaintiff requests attorney’s fees of $9, 843.10 and costs of $350.00, totaling $10, 193.10.[1] (ECF No. 49 at 1-2.) Plaintiff claims that she is entitled to these fees as she is the prevailing party and the Commissioner’s position was not substantially justified. (Id at 1.) In support of this claim, Plaintiff emphasizes that the court found the ALJ had “committed legal error” on the two issues the court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. (ECF No. 49-1 at 3.) Plaintiff requests the checks be made payable to her and delivered to the offices of her counsel. (ECF No. 49 at 2.)

The Commissioner responds requesting “the [c]ourt deny Plaintiffs petition . . . because the government’s position was substantially justified.” (ECF No. 50 at 1.) The Commissioner contends that “the record in this case was arguably defensible and a reasonable person could find the Commissioner’s position to be correct even though the [c]ourt ultimately found otherwise.” (Id. at 2.) Specifically, the Commissioner argues she took reasonable positions that the “record, including the newly submitted evidence [Dr. Tavel’s letter], continued to provide substantial evidence for the ALJ’s decision”, and that “the frequency of Plaintiff s treatment following her accident did not undermine the ALJ’s decision . . . .” (Id at 3.) The Commissioner argues “the fact that the Magistrate Judge agreed with the ...


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