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Cromedy v. Berryhill

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

October 31, 2017

LUQUINES LIZELL CROMEDY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] 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 Luquines Lizell Cromedy ("Cromedy") pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). Cromedy requests $8, 690.45 in attorney's fees on the ground that she is a prevailing party under the EAJA. ECF No. 32 at 1. Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, (the "Commissioner") argues that Cromedy 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 substantially justified and denies Cromedy's motion for attorney's fees.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Cromedy filed an application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") on May 14, 2009, alleging disability beginning on October 1, 2008. The Social Security Administration denied Cromedy's claim initially and on reconsideration. Cromedy requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), and a hearing was held on December 13, 2010. The ALJ issued his decision on December 30, 2010, finding that Cromedy was not disabled under the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, and Cromedy filed the instant action on August 31, 2012. The magistrate judge issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") on January 31, 2014, recommending that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. Cromedy objected to the R&R on February 13, 2014, and the Commissioner filed a brief reply to Cromedy's objections on March 3, 2014. Upon review, this court rejected the magistrate judge's R&R on March 17, 2014, reversed the Commissioner's decision, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Prevailing Party

         Under the EAJA, a court must 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-l 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 Cromedy's case to the Commissioner for administrative action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Cromedy is considered the "prevailing party" under the EAJA.[2] 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). "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.

         The government makes two arguments in opposition to Cromedy's fee motion: (1) that the government's position was reasonable as evidenced, at least in part, by the fact that the magistrate judge found in the Commissioner's favor in all respects and recommended affirming the Commissioner's decision; and (2) that Cromedy could not have met a Listing and therefore obtained a remand on mere technicalities.

         1. Magistrate Judge's R&R

         First, the Commissioner supports her contention that she was substantially justified based "at least in part, by the fact that Magistrate Judge Austin found in the Commissioner's favor on the Listings and credibility issues, and recommended affirming the Commissioner's decision." ECF No. 33 at 4 (citation omitted). In opposition, Cromedy argues that the Commissioner's objection to awarding attorney's fees based on a favorable R&R is improper. ECF No. 34 at 2.

         The court is unaware of any precedent that a favorable R&R in and of itself is sufficient to satisfy the "substantial justification" standard for an EAJA fee motion. Certainly, courts have found that a favorable R&R may weigh in favor of finding that the government was substantially justified in taking a certain position. See McKoy v. Colvin, C/A No. 4:12-1663-CMC-TER, 2013 WL 6780585, at *3 (D.S.C. Dec. 19, 2013) (finding that an R&R which affirmed the Commissioner's position was one factor-but not the determinative factor-to suggest that the Commissioner's position was substantially justified). However, the magistrate judge's recommendation that the court affirm the Commissioner's decision is not determinative of whether the Commissioner's position was substantially justified. Myers v. Barnhart, 518 F.Supp.2d 653, 656 (D.S.C. 2006) (citation omitted) (finding "the fact that this court remanded the case to the Commissioner does not mean that Plaintiff is entitled to attorney's fees"). Therefore, in the instant action, the magistrate judge's recommendation to affirm the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits is simply one factor that the court considers.

         2. ...


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