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Kendrick A. Johnson v. Michael J. Astrue

June 14, 2011

KENDRICK A. JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown

District Judge Ronald A. Guzman

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Geraldine Soat Brown, United States Magistrate Judge

This case comes before the court on plaintiff Kendrick Johnson's motion for attorneys' fees and costs under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. (Pl.'s Mot.) [Dkt 30.] The District Judge granted in part and denied in part plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, which challenged the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying in part plaintiff's application for social security benefits. (Mem. Op. & Order.) [Dkt 28.] The District Judge remanded the case back to the Commissioner for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff then brought the present motion for attorneys' fees and costs, seeking an award of $5,777.37. (Pl.'s Mot.; Pl.'s Reply at 9.) [Dkt 40.] The motion was referred to this court. [Dkt 41.] Because the Commissioner's position in this case was not substantially justified, plaintiff's motion is granted and he is awarded fees and costs in the amount of $5,780.98.*fn1

Background*fn2

On May 10, 2006, plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act, alleging he had been disabled due to narcolepsy and depression since June 1, 2000. (R. 15.)*fn3 Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he thereafter sought a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Id.) A hearing was conducted on September 22, 2008. (Id.)
On October 10, 2008, the ALJ issued a written decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled prior to December 7, 2005. (R. 15-20.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform "light" work prior to December 7, 2005.*fn4 (R. 18.) The ALJ gave substantial weight to the opinion of the medical expert who testified at the hearing, who opined that plaintiff's narcolepsy was not severe prior to that date. (R. 18, 20.) The ALJ also found that plaintiff's "statements concerning the intensity, duration and limiting effects of [his alleged] symptoms are not entirely credible prior to December 7, 2005." (R. 19.) The ALJ further noted a "gap" in plaintiff's medical treatment records from August 1996 to December 2005. (R. 18.) The ALJ went on to find that plaintiff was disabled as of December 7, 2005 due to narcolepsy symptoms, and was therefore entitled to SSI as of May 10, 2006, the date of his application. (R. 19-20.)

Plaintiff requested a review of the unfavorable portion of the ALJ's decision on November 12, 2008, which was denied. (R. 1-3.) Plaintiff thereafter filed this action on August 24, 2009 seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). [Dkt 1.] Plaintiff moved for summary judgment, challenging the ALJ's determination of plaintiff's credibility, his finding of the onset date of plaintiff's disability, and his assessment of plaintiff's RFC. (Pl.'s Mem. Mot. Summ. J. at 6-13.) [Dkt 19.]

The District Judge granted plaintiff's motion in part and remanded the case back to the Commissioner for further proceedings. (Mem. Op. & Order.) The District Judge held that "the ALJ failed to articulate sufficiently the grounds for his decision regarding the narcolepsy impairment and failed to build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and his conclusion." (Id. at 9.) Specifically, the District Judge found the ALJ made the following errors: (1) he failed to set forth specific reasons for his conclusion that plaintiff's statements were not entirely credible, which was "precisely the kind" of error Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-7p was designed to avoid; (2) he failed to explain why he gave substantial weight to the medical expert who testified at the hearing over other evidence in the record; (3) he failed to consider all the factors set forth in SSR 83-20 in determining the onset date of plaintiff's disability, including testimonial evidence of plaintiff and others close to him, evidence plaintiff could not afford medication, and non-contemporaneous medical evidence; and (4) he failed to consider all of the non-medical evidence in determining plaintiff's RFC prior to December 7, 2005, which he should have done pursuant to SSR 96-8p. (Id. at 9-14.)

The District Judge noted that the record might contain evidence to support the ALJ's conclusions, such as evidence that plaintiff worked as a rehabber in 2006 and that he failed to pursue medical treatment. (Id. at 11, 14.) However, because the ALJ failed to consider all of the evidence and failed to connect the evidence to his findings, the District Judge remanded the case for further proceedings. (Id. at 1, 14.) The District Judge instructed the ALJ upon remand to describe what weight he gave the evidence and to give specific reasons why he found some evidence more consistent with the record, to explain why he disregarded evidence, including but not limited to the reports of plaintiff's friends and family, and to examine what evidence was credible and what was not. (Id. at 14-15.)

Legal Standard

The EAJA allows for an award of attorneys' fees and costs to a party who prevails in a civil action against the United States, "including proceedings for judicial review of agency action." 28 U.S.C. § 2412. The court may award fees under the EAJA when: (1) the claimant was a "prevailing party"; (2) the government's position was not "substantially justified"; (3) there were no special circumstances that would make an award unjust; and (4) the claimant files a complete and timely application. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), (B); Stewart v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 679, 683 (7th Cir. 2009). The fees requested must also be reasonable, and the claimant must provide an itemized statement from his attorney of the time expended on the case and the rate at which fees and other expenses were computed. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(b), (d)(1)(B).

Discussion

In this case, the parties agreed before the District Judge that plaintiff was the prevailing party. [See dkt 38.] Plaintiff's application was timely filed, and the Commissioner has not raised any special circumstances that would make an award of fees and costs unjust. The only element the parties contest is whether the Commissioner's position was "substantially justified." The ...


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