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West v. Astrue

March 12, 2010

STEPHANIE L. WEST, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jeanne E. Scott, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Stephanie L. West's Motion for Attorney's Fees Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412 (Motion) (d/e 22, p. 9-11), Attorney's Affidavit and Memorandum in Support of Motions for EAJA Fees (d/e 22, p. 1-10), and Brief in Support of Petition for Equal Access to Justice Fees (d/e 21). Defendant has filed Commissioner's Memorandum in Opposition to Plaintiff's Application for Attorney's Fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (d/e 23). This matter is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication. For the reasons described below, Plaintiff's Motion is granted in part, and denied in part.

FACTS

Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) on January 27, 2004. See Opinion (d/e 19), p. 2. The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied her application initially and upon reconsideration. See id., p. 13. An administrative law judge (ALJ) held an evidentiary hearing on April 7, 2008, and denied Plaintiff's claim on May 27, 2008. See id., p. 13, 18. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 12, 2008. See id., p. 22. On February 11, 2009, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit, seeking judicial review of the SSA's denial of SSI benefits. Complaint (d/e 3). Both parties filed motions for summary judgment pursuant to this District's Local Rule 8.1(D). See Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 12); Motion for Summary Affirmance (d/e 16). On November 23, 2009, this Court granted Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and remanded the case for a new administrative hearing pursuant to Sentence 4 of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Opinion of November 23, 2009 (d/e 19), p. 31. Specifically, the Court found that the ALJ did not take into account the full medical record when analyzing whether Plaintiff's impairments met or equaled Listing criteria, and when determining Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC). The Court also noted that the ALJ's description of Plaintiff's medical history was not consonant with the record as a whole. See, e.g., id., p. 26.

Plaintiff filed her Petition on December 10, 2009, seeking $3,406.25 in attorneys' fees for 27.25 hours of work her attorney spent on her case. Petition, p. 8.

ANALYSIS

I. ENTITLEMENT TO ATTORNEYS' FEES

Plaintiff argues that she is entitled to an award of attorneys' fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), because the Defendant's position before this Court was "not substantially justified." See EAJA, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(B). Defendant counters that his position was substantially justified, and also that should the Court award fees, they should go to Plaintiff, and not to Plaintiff's attorney.

Under the EAJA, a party who prevails against the United States in a civil action may be entitled to an award of attorneys' fees. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(B); Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). The prevailing party's net worth cannot exceed $2,000,000 as of the time the lawsuit was filed, and the prevailing party must file the application for fees within thirty days of the district court entering judgment. 28 U.S.C. §§ 2412(d)(1)(B) & (d)(2)(B).

If these elements are satisfied, the Commissioner bears the burden of demonstrating that his position at the administrative and trial level was "substantially justified." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). A position is substantially justified if a reasonable person would find that the position had a reasonable basis in law and in fact. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). The inquiry is whether the Commissioner "had a rational ground for thinking it had a rational ground for its action." Kolman v. Shalala, 39 F.3d 173, 177 (7th Cir. 1994). The Court looks to the Commissioner's position as a whole to determine whether it was substantially justified. United States v. Hallmark Const. Co., 200 F.3d 1076, 1081 (7th Cir. 2000). "The outcome of a case is not conclusive evidence of the justification for the government's position." Id.

In this case, both sides agree that Plaintiff is a "prevailing party," that her application for fees was timely, and that her net worth did not exceed $2,000,000 at the time she filed this lawsuit. The parties' disagreement centers around whether the Commissioner's position was "substantially justified."

The Commissioner argues that his position was substantially justified because Plaintiff did not point to specific medical evidence showing that her pancreatitis met or equaled a Listing, and because the administrative law judge (ALJ) relied on state agency physicians' determination that Plaintiff did not meet the relevant Listing criteria. The Commissioner also points out that the Court agreed with the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's mental conditions, and argues that his position on Plaintiff's drug abuse was substantially justified.

The Court disagrees. First, the Court noted that the ALJ's portrayal of Plaintiff's physical illnesses was "wholly unsupported by any evidence" because, for example, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff had only been hospitalized once, despite the fact that the medical record was replete with accounts of multi-day hospitalizations. Opinion of November 23, 2009, p. 26. This error influenced the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff's conditions did not meet or equal relevant Listing criteria.

With respect to Plaintiff's drug problem, the Court specifically found that the ALJ "dedicated an inappropriate amount of space in his Decision to discussing her past drug abuse." Id. During the relevant period, the medical evidence did not support the ALJ's characterization of Plaintiff as a drug abuser because, as the Court pointed out, all but two of Plaintiff's positive drug tests were due to the pain medication regime she had been prescribed by her doctors. Id. at 29. The ALJ's mis-characterization of Plaintiff as an illegal drug abuser factored into his RFC determination, where he concluded that Plaintiff would miss four or more days of work per ...


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