Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Holcomb v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

October 17, 2016

Gordon Simmons Holcomb, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiff Gordon Simmons Holcomb's (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). (ECF No. 20.) The Commissioner opposes the motion on the ground that her position in this case was substantially justified. (ECF No. 21.) For the reasons that follow, the court GRANTS the motion IN PART and DENIES it IN PART.

         I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In January 2011, Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) due to knee pain, back pain, and a broken right arm. (ECF No. 13 at 2, 6; see also ECF No. 7-6 at 7.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (ECF No. 7-4 at 3, 13, 16.) After Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act (“SSA”) because he had “the residual functional capacity to perform light work” and such jobs “exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” (ECF No. 7-2 at 31, 36.) Relevant here, the ALJ accorded little weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician. (See Id. at 32-35.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review.

         In July 2013, Plaintiff commenced this instant action in federal district court to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for DIB and SSI. (ECF No. 1.) On February 2, 2015, the Magistrate Judge issued her recommendation that the Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for DIB and SSI be affirmed. (ECF No. 13.) After Plaintiff timely filed objections (ECF No. 15), the court rejected in part the Report and Recommendation, reversed the Commissioner's decision, and remanded the case to the Commissioner (ECF No. 18.) The court did not agree with the Magistrate Judge that the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's treating physician's opinions in accordance with 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. (Id. at 7.) More specifically, the court explained that

[t]he court cannot in fact determine whether the ALJ considered all of the factors in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)as he is required to do, because the ALJ did not discuss those factors explicitly. Without an express discussion of the § 404.1527(c) factors, the court cannot ascertain if substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination that [the physician's opinion] was not entitled to controlling weight as [he was] Plaintiff's treating physician.

(Id. (footnotes omitted).)

         On May 29, 2015, Plaintiff filed the instant motion for attorneys' fees under the EAJA, contending that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified. (ECF No. 20; see ECF No. 20-1 at 2-3.) In response, the Commissioner argues that its position was substantially justified, explaining that the absence of substantial evidence does not equate to the absence of substantial justification, noting that the Magistrate Judge recommended affirming its decision, and referencing case law for the proposition that an ALJ need not expressly weigh each of the § 404.1527(c) factors. (ECF No. 21 at 2-3, 5-7.) In reply, Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge's recommendation to affirm should not be dispositive and that the ALJ was required to weigh non-controlling medical opinions using all the § 404.1527(c) factors. (ECF No. 22 at 1-2.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD AND ANALYSIS

         “A party who prevails in litigation against the United States is entitled to EAJA attorneys' fees upon timely petition for them if the government's position was not substantially justified and no special circumstances make an award unjust.” Thompson v. Sullivan, 980 F.2d 280, 281 (4th Cir. 1992) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Commissioner has the burden of demonstrating substantial justification in both fact and law. Meyer v. Colvin, 754 F.3d 251, 255 (4th Cir. 2014). “[T]he test of whether or not a government action is substantially justified is essentially one of reasonableness.” Smith v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 144, 146 (4th Cir. 1984) (internal quotation marks omitted). If the Commissioner's position is based on an arguably defensible administrative record, then it is substantially justified. Crawford v. Sullivan, 935 F.2d 655, 658 (4th Cir. 1991). The Commissioner's position may be justified even though it is incorrect and may be substantially justified if a reasonable person could believe the government's position was appropriate. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 566 n.2 (1988); Meyer, 754 F.3d at 255.

         As an initial matter, the court notes that the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed is not dispositive. See Howard v. Barnhart, 376 F.3d 551, 554 (6th Cir. 2004) (disapproving “overemphas[is]” of the “fact that the ALJ's decision was adopted by the Magistrate Judge”); McKoy v. Colvin, No. 4:12-cv-1663-CMC-TER, 2013 WL 6780585, at *3 (D.S.C. Dec. 19, 2013) (explaining that Magistrate Judge's recommendation to affirm is “not determinative” of substantial justifiability). The court agrees with the Commissioner, however, that the Magistrate Judge's recommended affirmance is a factor that, to some extent, should weigh in the Commissioner's favor. See McKoy, No. 4:12-cv-1663-CMC-TER, at *3 (“While not determinative, the fact that the Magistrate Judge recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed suggests that the Commissioner's decision was substantially justified.”) Nevertheless, for the reasons discussed below, the court determines that this favorable factor is not enough for the Commissioner to meet her burden.[1]

         Although, as the Commissioner points out, there is indication that the ALJ considered some of the § 404.1527(c) factors, the court, in its order, stated that it could not determine whether the ALJ considered all of the factors. The ALJ's failure to indicate whether he considered all the factors is fatal for the Commissioner's arguments. As another court in the Fourth Circuit, after canvassing the case law, has explained:

Nothing in [§ 404.1527(c)] requires an express discussion of each factor. Although the Fourth Circuit has not yet addressed whether an ALJ must explicitly analyze every factor, several district courts within the Fourth Circuit have not found such a requirement. However, at least one district court within the Fourth Circuit has required explicit discussion of each factor.
Thus, it is not entirely clear whether the ALJ must explicitly “check off” every [§ 404.1527(c)] factor. What is clear under Fourth Circuit law is that the ALJ must at least indicate that he or she was aware of and considered all of the factors.

Baxter v. Astrue, No. SKG-10-3048, 2012 WL 32567, at *6-7 (D. Md. Jan. 4, 2012) (internal citations and footnote omitted); see also Odom v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 2:10-cv-02757-DCN, 2013 WL ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.