United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division
May 21, 2003
BETTY STRONG PLAINTIFF,
JO ANNE BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANT
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael T. Mason, Magistrate Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
The facts underlying plaintiff's complaint and the procedural history of this case are set out in our previous opinion, Strong v. Barnhart, No 01 C 6499, 2002 WL 31415714 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 23, 2002), and therefore will be mentioned only briefly here. On December 29, 2000, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") McCuire held an administrative disability hearing in which he denied plaintiff, Betty Strong, disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act. ALJ McGuire concluded, in his opinion, that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a circuit board assembler and that she was not disabled. Plaintiff requested review of that decision by the Appeals Council, but the Council declined to assume jurisdiction over the ALJ's decision. On October 22, 2002, this court vacated the denial and remanded the case back to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings. This was done on the basis that the ALJ failed to create "an `accurate and logical bridge' between the evidence and his conclusion [that plaintiff could] perform medium work," and that the Appeals Council erred as a matter of law when it failed to seek interpretation of the MRI results from the Medical Support Staff before declining jurisdiction. Strong, 2002 WL 31415714, at *6 (citing Shramek v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 809, 811 (7th Cir. 2000)). On December 13, 2002, plaintiff applied for attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). As we explain below, we grant plaintiff's application for attorney's fees in the amount of $6,179.06.
Standard of Review
Under the EAJA, a court shall award attorney's fees and expenses to a prevailing party other than the government unless the court finds that the position of the government was "substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner's position is substantially justified, even if not correct, "if a reasonable person could think it correct, that is, if it has a reasonable basis in law and fact." Marcus v. Shalala, 17 F.3d 1033, 1036 (7th Cir. 1994) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 566 n. 2 (1988)); see also Cummings v. Sullivan, 950 F.2d 492, 495 (7th Cir. 1991). As plaintiff is the prevailing party,*fn1 the Commissioner bears the burden of proving that her position was substantially justified.
Plaintiff presents two arguments as to why the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified: first, because the ALJ failed to create an "accurate and logical bridge" between the available evidence and his conclusion; and, second, because the Appeals Council erred as a matter of law when it refused to review the case after failing to seek interpretation of certain MRI results. We consider each of plaintiffs arguments in turn.
Plaintiff first argues that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified because the ALJ failed to create an "accurate and logical bridge" between the available evidence and his conclusion. Defendant, in response, argues that the Commissioner's position was substantially justified, even though ultimately found to be incorrect, since the ALJ considered and discussed evidence in his decision which reasonably supported his findings that plaintiff could return to her past work as a circuit board assembler.
We agree with defendant. The record reflects, and our opinion acknowledges, the various conflicting evidence before the ALJ which led him to discount the expert opinion of one doctor over that of another. While the ALJ failed to descriptively articulate the reasoning behind all of his conclusions, we agree with defendant that there was enough evidence on which the Commissioner could have justifiably relied to support her conclusion that plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. See Townsend v. Barnhart, No. 99 C 1971, 2002 WL 1949737, at *2 (N.D.Ill., Aug. 3, 2002) (finding there was enough evidence which conflicted with the plaintiff's position on which the Commissioner could have justifiably relied). Thus, we find that plaintiff's first argument fails to show that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified.
Plaintiff next argues that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified because the Appeals Council committed an error of law — namely, it substituted its lay opinion regarding the significance of the MRI results for that of a physician by reviewing the evidence and then declining to assume jurisdiction. Defendant responds that, even though the Appeals Council was ultimately found to be incorrect, it acted reasonably (and thus so did the Commissioner) in concluding that the later-submitted MRI did not warrant additional inquiry by the Medical Support Staff. In support of this contention, defendant points out that the MRI submitted to the Appeals Council was consistent with earlier MRI results that had been presented to the ALJ.
Plaintiff, in support of her contention that the Appeals Council's error of law was not reasonable, cites Bauzo v. Bowen, 803 F.2d 917, 926 (7th Cir. 1986) for the proposition that "[n]either the Appeals Council nor this court is qualified to make [a] medical judgment about residual functional capacity based solely on bare medical findings." Plaintiff also argues — citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.970(b) — that the law is clear that the Appeals Council will review a case if new and material evidence is submitted to the Appeals Council which relates to the period before the date of the ALJ's decision. According to plaintiff, because the Commissioner failed to comply with these established laws and regulations, its position was not substantially justified.
After considering the arguments presented, we agree with plaintiff that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified based on the Appeals Council's legal error in this case. Contrary to defendant's arguments, we do not believe the Appeals Council acted reasonably when it concluded that the later-submitted MRI did not warrant additional inquiry and thereby substituted its lay opinion regarding the significance of MRI results for that of a physician. As such, we find that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified.
Because we find that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified, we grant plaintiff's application for attorney's fees. As for the amount of fees to be awarded, plaintiff seeks payment for 42.25 hours at a rate of $146.25 per hour. Defendant did not object to either the number of hours or the hourly rate, and we see no reason to object to these figures, either. Thus, for the foregoing reasons, plaintiff is awarded attorney's fees in the amount of $6,179.06. It is so ordered.