United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division
C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the court on a motion for attorney's
fees filed by claimant Libby Hardin Peck ("Peck")
pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act
("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). Peck
requests $5, 466.75 in attorney's fees and $23.00 for
costs and expenses on the grounds that she is a prevailing
party under the EAJA. ECF No. 45 at 2. Nancy A. Berryhill,
Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,
(the "Commissioner") argues that Peck 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 Peck's motion for attorney's fees and costs.
filed an application for disability insurance benefits
("DIB") and supplemental security income
("SSI") on December 5, 2008, alleging disability
beginning on July 15, 2000. The Social Security
Administration denied Peck's claim initially and on
reconsideration. Peck requested a hearing before an
administrative law judge ("ALJ"), and a hearing was
held on November 4, 2010. The ALJ issued his decision on
December 15, 2010, finding that Peck was not disabled under
the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council declined to
review the ALJ's decision, and Peck filed the instant
action on September 10, 2012. The magistrate judge issued a
Report and Recommendation ("R&R) on February 2,
2014, recommending that the case be reversed and remanded to
the Commissioner. The Commissioner objected to portions of
the R&R on February 24, 2014. Upon review, this court
adopted the magistrate judge's R&R on March 13, 2014,
reversed the Commissioner's decision, and remanded the
case for further proceedings.
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-l 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 Peck's case
to the Commissioner for administrative action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g), Peck is considered the "prevailing
party" under the EAJA. See Shalala v. Schaefer,
509 U.S. 292, 302 (1993).
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
argues that the Commissioner's position in this action
was unreasonable because the ALJ failed to properly explain
his decision as to whether Peck met the requirements of
Listing 1.04(A). Pl's Mem. in Supp of Mot. For
Attorney's Fees 5. The court disagrees.
decision, the ALJ dedicated three paragraphs to the step
three analysis; however, he failed to sufficiently explain
his determination that Peck does not meet Listing 1.04(A).
Tr. 86-87. Due to this failure, on March 13, 2014, this court
rejected the R&R, reversed the Commissioner's
decision, and remanded the case for further proceedings. ECF
No. 42 at 7-8. Specifically, the court remanded the case
based on its inability to determine whether the ALJ's
Listing determination was supported by substantial evidence.
Id. at 7. The court stated it "simply cannot
find that the ALJ's step three determination is supported
by substantial evidence without further discussion by the
ALJ[, ]" and instructed the ALJ to sufficiently explain
his determination that Peck does not meet Listing 1.04(A).
Id. In other words, the court reversed the denial of
benefits and remanded for further reconsideration due to an
articulation error, not because the Commissioner's
position was necessarily wrong on the merits. Id. at
6-8; see ECF No. 42 at 7 n.2 (stating "[t]he court does
not express an opinion on the ultimate merits of Peck's
application for DIB and SSI").
well established that "[i]f the government's
position resulted from its failure to perform certain
analyses required by the law and its regulations, the
position was not substantially justified."
Myers, 518 F.Supp.2d at 656 (citation omitted).
However, in the instant case, the ALJ did not fail to perform
step three (one of the required steps in the five-part
sequential analysis). Instead, the ALJ performed the
appropriate analysis but failed to provide supporting
evidence or point to any supporting documentation in the
record. Therefore, the ALJ's lack of discussion in his
step three analysis does not indicate the government's
position was not substantially justified. See Id. at
657 (stating the ALJ's failure to adequately explain his
conclusions at steps three and five do not indicate the
government's position was not substantially justified);
see also Anderson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 198
F.3d 244, 1999 WL 1045072, at *6 (6th Cir. 1999) (unpublished
table decision) (affirming the district court's denial of
attorney's fees, finding the district court properly
reasoned that the ALJ's lack of explicit articulation did
not demonstrate that there was no reasonable basis for the
ALJ's decision to deny benefits).
into account the ALJ's decision as a whole and the
totality of the circumstances, the court finds that even
though the Commissioner's position was not explained as
comprehensively as this court requires, the Commissioner had
"a reasonable basis in law and fact" such that
"a reasonable person could think it correct."
See Underwood, 487 U.S. at 566 n.2. Thus, ...