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Stage v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

March 16, 2017

DEBBIE A. STAGE o/b/o, BRIAN C. McCARTY DECEASED Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH S. VAN BOKKELEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Debbie Stage moves the Court for attorneys' fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. For the reasons stated below, the Court FINDS Plaintiff's fee application presumptively reasonable and, accordingly, ACCEPTS it in its entirety; GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees (Docket No. 33); and AWARDS Plaintiff $33, 265.35.

         A. Overview of the Case

         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income, Disability Insurance Benefits, and Widow's Insurance Benefits. Her application was denied, both initially and upon reconsideration. She then proceeded to a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who found she was not disabled. Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision, thereby solidifying the denial into final agency action reviewable by the courts under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff next appealed the denial to district court, where the Commissioner's denial was affirmed. See Stage v. Colvin, 2015 WL 1402149 (2015). Plaintiff appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded the case back to the Social Security Administration. See Stage v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 1121 (2016). The Seventh Circuit instructed the ALJ to obtain medical testimony regarding Plaintiff's hip replacement and to give more reasoned assessments of Plaintiff's credibility, residual functional capacity, and the proper weight to be afforded to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician. See Stage, 812 F.3d at 1126-27.

         Having uncontestedly assumed the classification of a “prevailing party, ” Plaintiff now seeks an award of attorneys' fees for litigation before the district and appellate courts under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). 28 U.S.C. § 2412.

         B. Legal Standard

         The general “American” rule requires each litigant to pay his own attorney's fees and expenses. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 429. The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), however, reverses this general approach to fees when certain qualifications are met. The EAJA entitles a civil litigant prevailing against the United States to attorneys' fees “unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). A party must meet several conditions to be eligible for fees under the EAJA. Comm'r, I.N.S. v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 158-61 (1990).[1] Once he meets these conditions, however, it is the task of the District Court to determine what fees are reasonable. Id. at 161.

         There exists no precise rule or formula for determining what fees are reasonable. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 436. A reasonable fee is a fee which is sufficient to induce a capable attorney to undertake the representation of a meritorious case. See Perdue v. Kenny, 559 U.S. 542, 552 (“A reasonable attorney's fee is one that is adequate to attract competent counsel, but that does not produce windfalls to attorneys.”) (quoting Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886, 897 (1984)). A district court hearing an EAJA claim may accept the Plaintiff's fee application, may attempt to identify specific hours that should be eliminated, or may simply reduce the award to account for limited success in the underlying litigation. See Id. Such a determination is an equitable judgment in which the court must necessarily exercise its discretion. Id.

         The absence of a precise formula for calculating reasonable fees does not, however, grant a district court boundless discretion. See Montanez v. Simon, 755 F.3d 547, 553 (7th Cir. 2014). A district court must provide “a concise but clear explanation of its reasons for the fee award.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437; see also Montanez, 755 F.3d at 553 (emphasizing that a district court “must apply the correct [legal] standard” and “bears the responsibility of justifying its conclusions”) (quoting Fox v. Vice, 563 U.S. 826, 838 (2011) and Sottoriva v. Claps, 617 F.3d 971, 975 (7th Cir. 2010)). A district court must also provide a “reasonably specific explanation for all aspects of a fee determination.” Perdue, 559 U.S. at 559. This explanation may be “concise, ” but must remain an “explanation, ” i.e., “a rendering of reasons in support of a judgment”; not a conclusory statement. Sottoriva, 617 F.3d at 976.

         The most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433.[2] This is referred to as the lodestar. Perdue, 559 U.S. at 546. “[T]he lodestar figure includes most, if not all, of the relevant factors constituting a ‘reasonable' attorney's fee.” Id. at 553 (quoting Pennsylvania v. Delaware Valley Citizens' Council for Clean Air, 478 U.S. 546, 566 (1986)). As such, the lodestar method yields a fee which is presumptively reasonable. See Id. This presumption is strong. City of Burlington v. Dague, 505 U.S. 557, 562 (1992).

         Moreover, the lodestar amount should not be adjusted on the basis of a factor subsumed in the lodestar calculation. See Perdue, 559 U.S. at 546 (“[F]actors subsumed in the lodestar calculation cannot be used as a ground for increasing an award above the lodestar”).[3] For example, the novelty and complexity of a case may not be used to enhance an award because, presumably, these factors are fully reflected in the number of billable hours recorded by counsel. Id. at 553. Similarly, the quality of an attorney's performance should not be used to adjust the lodestar because such considerations are normally reflected in the reasonable hourly rate. Id.

         A request for attorney's fees should not, however, result in a second major litigation. Hensely, 461 U.S. at 437. Where the parties are unable to reach a settlement regarding fees, the fee applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended along with hourly rates. Id. The applicant should exercise billing judgment with respect to hours worked and should maintain billing time records in a manner that will enable a reviewing court to identify distinct claims. Id. The fee applicant must submit appropriate documentation to meet “the burden of establishing entitlement to an award.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437. “But trial courts need not, and indeed should not, become green-eyeshade accountants. The essential goal in fees (to either party) is to do rough justice, not to achieve auditing perfection.” Fox v. Vice, 563 U.S. 826, 838 (2011).

         Thus, while the fee-applicant bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and of adequately documenting the appropriate hours expended and their corresponding rates, the government bears the burden of overcoming the strong presumption of reasonableness ...


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