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Klein v. Colvin

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

July 24, 2017

SCOTT KLEIN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. NORTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on a motion for attorney's fees filed by claimant Scott Klein (“Klein”) pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). Klein requests $5, 041.25 in attorney's fees on the ground that he is a prevailing party under the EAJA. ECF No. 24 at 2. Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), argues that Klein is not entitled to such fees and costs because the Commissioner's position in this litigation was substantially justified. The court finds that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified and grants Klein's attorney fee petition.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Klein filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) on January 11, 2011, alleging disability beginning on June 4, 2004. The Social Security Administration denied Klein's claim initially and on reconsideration. Klein requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), and a hearing was held on August 30, 2012. The ALJ issued its decision on November 30, 2012, finding that Klein was not disabled under the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, and Klein filed the instant action on November 11, 2015. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on July 28, 2015, recommending that the case be remanded to the Commissioner. The Commissioner filed a Response of No Objections to the R&R on July 29, 2015. Upon review, this Court adopted the Magistrate Judge's R&R on August 17, 2015.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Prevailing Party

         Under the EAJA, a court shall award reasonable attorney's fees to a prevailing party in certain civil actions against the United States unless the court finds that the government's position was substantially justified or that special circumstances render an award unjust. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). To qualify as a “prevailing party, ” a party “must succeed on the merits of a claim.” S-1 By & Through P-1 v. State Bd. of Educ. of N.C. , 6 F.3d 160, 170 (4th Cir. 1993) (Wilkinson, J., dissenting), adopted as majority opinion, 21 F.3d 49 (4th Cir. 1994) (en banc). “In other words, success must be something buttressed by a court's authority or required by a rule of law. The lawsuit must materially alter the ‘legal relationship' between plaintiffs and defendants.” Id. Because this court reversed and remanded Klein's case to the Commissioner for administrative action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Klein is considered the “prevailing party” under the EAJA. See Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 302 (1993).

         B. Substantially Justified

         The government has the burden of proving that its position was substantially justified. Crawford v. Sullivan, 935 F.2d 655, 658 (4th Cir. 1991). Evaluating whether the government's position was substantially justified is not an “issue-by-issue analysis” but an examination of the “totality of circumstances.” Roanoke River Basin Ass'n v. Hudson, 991 F.2d 132, 139 (4th Cir. 1993); see also Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983) (“A request for attorney's fees should not result in a second major litigation.”). “The government's position must be substantially justified in both fact and law.” Thompson v. Sullivan, 980 F.2d 280, 281 (4th Cir. 1992). Substantially justified does not mean “justified to a high degree, but rather justified in substance or in the main-that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (internal quotation marks omitted). “The government's non-acquiescence in the law of the circuit entitles the claimant to recover attorney's fees.” Crawford, 935 F.2d at 658; see also Adams v. Barnhart, 445 F.Supp.2d 593, 595 (D.S.C. 2006) (“Where the government's position was a result of its failure to perform a certain analysis required by the law and its regulations, the government's position was not substantially justified.”). There is no presumption that losing the case means that the government's position was not substantially justified. Crawford, 935 F.2d at 656.

         1. Treating Physician Testimony

         Klein argues that the Commissioner's position in this action was unreasonable because the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Klein's treating physician's multiple opinions. Pl.'s Mot. 7. The court agrees.

         The requirement that an ALJ must give specific reasons for discounting a treating physician's testimony is well-established. Under the applicable regulations, when an ALJ decides to give a treating physician's opinion less than controlling weight, he or she “must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating [physician's] medical opinion and the reasons for that weight.” Titles II & XVI: Giving Controlling Weight to Treating Source Med. Opinions, SSR 96-2P (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). In Rivers v. Astrue, No. 4:11-cv-01386, 2012 WL 2590498, at *3 (D.S.C. July 5, 2012), the court held that if the ALJ “determines that a treating physician's opinion should not be afforded controlling weight, ” the ALJ must then “analyze and weigh all the evidence of record” under the following factors: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examinations; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) the evidence with which the physician supports his opinion; (4) the consistency of the opinion; and (5) whether the physician is a specialist in the area in which he is rendering an opinion. See also Avant v. Astrue, No. 4:11-cv-822, 2012 WL 1952657, at *5 (D.S.C. May 9, 2012) (finding that the ALJ “did not comply with the proper analysis” under SSR 96-2p because he did not explain what weight he was giving the treating physician's opinions or specify what contradictory evidence he was relying on.); Hilton v. Astrue, No. 6:10-cv-2012, 2011 WL 5869704, at *3 (D.S.C. Nov. 21, 2011) (finding the ALJ's “conclusory reason” that the treating physician's opinion “is against the weight of the record as a whole” insufficient to satisfy SSR 96-2p); see also Ellis v. Astrue, No. 3:07-cv-3996, 2009 WL 578539 at *8 (D.S.C. Mar. 5, 2009) (rejecting post hoc rationale for ALJ's decision).

         Here, a review of the record reveals that the ALJ failed to properly analyze the multiple opinions of the treating physician Dr. Julius C. Hedden, who treated Klein from June of 2002 to December of 2010. Indeed, the magistrate judge concluded-and this court agrees-that the ALJ's written decision “contains next to no analysis of [Dr. Hedden's] opinions.” ECF No. 18, R&R at 8. The ALJ's explanation for his decision consisted entirely of the following:

I assign less weight to Dr. Hedden's opinions, as his opinions appear to rely on claimant's subjective complaints as opposed to his treatment notes. His treatment notes reflect claimant reported chronic back pain with constant discomfort; however; he was treated conservatively ...

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