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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

January 16, 2018

GENE WILLIAMS ON BEHALF OF PAMELA TOWNSEND, DECEASED, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Application for Attorney's Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act and for Entry of Final Judgment Order [ECF No. 29], filed on December 4, 2017. For the reasons stated in this Opinion, the Plaintiff's Application for Attorney's Fees will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         This case has an extensive procedural history going back over fifteen years, the details of which are set forth in the Court's Opinion and Order of September 5, 2017 [ECF No. 27], remanding this case to the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) for further review. In its Opinion and Order, the Court disagreed with the Plaintiff on each of his arguments. However, the Court found that the ALJ failed to affirmatively ask the Vocational Expert (“the VE”) whether there were any possible conflicts with her conclusions and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“the DOT”). Thus, the Court remanded the case back to the ALJ to “satisfy her affirmative obligation under SSR 00-4p to inquire about all conflicts in occupational information at the hearing level, as part of the ALJ's duty to fully develop the record and inquire, on the record, as to whether or not there is such consistency.” (See ECF No. 27 at 29 (internal quotations omitted).)

         Because the Plaintiff was the prevailing party in his appeal from the final decision of the Commissioner, on December 4, 2017, the Plaintiff filed an Application for Attorney's Fees, Paralegal Fees, and Costs Under the Equal Access to Justice Act [ECF No. 29], seeking an award of $7, 436.30 in attorney's fees and costs under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. On December 7, 2017, the Defendant filed an Opposition [ECF No. 30], and on December 18, 2017, the Plaintiff filed a Reply [ECF No. 31].

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The EAJA provides for an award of reasonable attorney's fees and expenses to a “prevailing party in any civil action brought . . . against the United States or any agency or any official of the United States, ” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(b), where the government's position was not “substantially justified” and where no “special circumstances make an award unjust, ” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). This language and remaining provisions of the statute grant district courts the discretion to award attorney's fees if four elements are established: (1) the claimant is a “prevailing party”; (2) the government's position was not substantially justified; (3) there are no special circumstances making an award unjust; and (4) the fee application is submitted to the court within thirty days of final judgment and is supported by an itemized statement. Golembiewski v. Barnhart, 382 F.3d 721, 723-24 (7th Cir. 2004).

         Under the EAJA, there is no presumption that a party who prevails against the Government will recover attorney's fees, but the Government bears the burden of proving that its position satisfies the substantially justified standard. United States v. Hallmark Const. Co., 200 F.3d 1076, 1079 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). It is important to note that the Government's position need not be correct to be justified and that it is “substantially justified” if it has a reasonable basis both in law and fact. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565-66 (1988). However, the Commissioner's position must be stronger than merely non-frivolous; it must be “justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.” Id. Substantially justified does not mean justified to a “high degree, ” and the standard of substantially justified is satisfied if there is a “genuine dispute” or “if reasonable people could differ as to the appropriateness of the contested action.” Stein v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 317, 320 (7th Cir. 1992). Thus, there is a category of cases in which “[the Government] could take a position that is substantially justified, yet lose.” Pierce, 487 U.S. at 569.

         EAJA fees may be awarded if either the Government's pre-litigation conduct or its litigation position was not substantially justified, and the ALJ's decision constitutes part of the agency's pre-litigation conduct. Cunningham v. Barnhart, 440 F.3d 862, 863-64 (7th Cir. 2006). However, because the district court is to make only one determination for the entire civil action,

fees may be awarded in cases where the government's prelitigation conduct was not substantially justified even though its litigating position may have been substantially justified and vice versa. In other words, the fact that the government's litigating position was substantially justified does not necessarily offset prelitigation conduct that was without a reasonable basis.

Marcus v. Shalala, 17 F.3d 1033, 1036 (7th Cir. 1994). The Seventh Circuit has set forth a three-part standard for reviewing the Government's position; the Government must show that its position was grounded in: (1) a reasonable basis in truth for the facts alleged; (2) a reasonable basis in law for the theory propounded; and (3) a reasonable connection between the facts alleged and the legal theory propounded. Golembiewski, 382 F.3d at 724.

         DISCUSSION

         A. The Government's Position

         In their briefs addressing the Plaintiff's request for attorney's fees, the parties dispute whether the Government's position was substantially justified. There appears to be no dispute that the Plaintiff is the prevailing party, that no “special circumstances” apply that ...


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