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Ethon D. Begoun v. Michael J. Astrue

August 17, 2011

ETHON D. BEGOUN, PLAINTIFF/CLAIMANT,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT/RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jeffrey T. Gilbert Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

This matter is before the Court on claimant Ethon Begoun's application for attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA") pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2412. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Begoun's application for disability benefits, which he appealed to this Court. Begoun's appeal was successful. We reversed the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security and remanded the case to the SSA pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings. See Memorandum Opinion and Order ("Mem.Op.") [Dkt.#34], 2011 WL 307375 (N.D. Ill. January 28, 2011). As the prevailing party, Begoun now seeks payment of his attorney's fees under the EAJA. For the reasons set forth below, Begoun's application for attorney's fees [Dkt.#35] is granted, and he is awarded attorney's fees in the amount of $5911.32.*fn1

BACKGROUND*fn2

Begoun applied for disability insurance benefits on January 23, 1992, alleging he had been disabled since April 28, 1990. He was granted disability insurance benefits beginning in January 1991 and continued to receive disability insurance benefits until August 2002. After reviewing Begoun's work history, the SSA determined in June 2002 that his eligibility for disability insurance benefits had ended on March 31, 1997, three months after he had completed his trial work period, and therefore, the SSA stopped making payments to Begoun.*fn3 The SSA then sought to recover the overpayment of disability insurance benefits Begoun had received between 1997 and 2002.

Begoun requested a waiver of recovery of the overpayment, asserting that he was without fault in causing the overpayment and that he could not afford to repay to the SSA the overpayment he had received. After reviewing Begoun's request, the SSA concluded that it would not waive recovery of the overpayment. Begoun then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). After conducting a hearing, the ALJ concluded that Begoun was not without fault in causing the overpayment of disability insurance benefits and denied his request for waiver of repayment. Ultimately, after exhausting the administrative process within the SSA, Begoun was deemed to be not without fault in causing the overpayment of disability insurance benefits and ordered to repay the overpayment of benefits.

Begoun then sought judicial review before this Court. In his motion for summary judgment, Begoun argued that (1) the ALJ erred in failing to recognize as reasonable his subjective belief regarding the computation of his trial work period; (2) the ALJ failed to consider the impact of his ongoing medical conditions upon his understanding of his reporting responsibility concerning his trial work period at the time the overpayments occurred; and (3) the ALJ's finding that he was able to repay the overpayment was not supported by substantial evidence.

After careful review, we concluded that: (1) the ALJ did not adequately address or develop fully the record regarding Begoun's subjective beliefs and state of mind concerning his reporting responsibility for his trial work period and the purported profitability of the home repair business Begoun and his wife operated out of their home; (2) the ALJ also did not address all of the relevant evidence in the record, including evidence that did not support his ultimate conclusions and failed to build a logical bridge to his conclusions from the evidence in the record upon which he did rely; and (3) the ALJ's finding that Begoun is able to repay the overpayment was not supported by substantial evidence. As a result of the ALJ's errors, we granted Begoun's motion for summary judgment and remanded the matter to the SSA for further proceedings.

DISCUSSION

The EAJA allows for recovery of attorney's fees and costs by a party who prevails in a civil action against the United States, "including proceedings for judicial review of agency action." 28 U.S.C. § 2414. A court may award fees under the EAJA when (1) the claimant is a prevailing party; (2) the government's position is not substantially justified; (3) there are no special circumstances that would make an award unjust, and (4) the prevailing party's application for fees is timely filed. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A); Comm'r, INS v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 155 (1990); Stewart v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 679, 683 (7th Cir. 2009).

Here, the Commissioner does not dispute that Begoun is the prevailing party, that his application for fees was timely filed, and that no special circumstances exist that would make an award of fees unjust. The only element that the parties contest is whether the Commissioner's position was substantially justified. To defend an EAJA petition, the Commissioner has the burden of proving that, although the matter was remanded to the SSA for further proceedings, his position was nonetheless substantially justified. Golembiewski v. Barnhart, 382 F.3d 721, 724 (7th Cir. 2004). Like the parties, the Court will focus solely on whether the Commissioner has met his burden of showing that the positions -- both as expressed by the ALJ in the administrative proceeding and by counsel for the Commissioner before this Court -- were substantially justified.

A. The Commissioner's Position Was Not Substantially Justified

To demonstrate that his position was substantially justified, the Commissioner must show that his position had each of the following attributes: (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 theory propounded. Conrad v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 987, 990 (7th Cir. 2006). To succeed in defeating an application for fees, the Commissioner must show that the position was substantially justified both in the decision reached by the ALJ as well as expressed by counsel during the appeal before this court. Golembiewski, 382 F.3d at 724. The Commissioner's position can be justified even if it was not correct and, therefore, a loss on the merits does not equate to a lack of substantial justification. United States v. Hallmark Construction Co., 200 F.3d 1076, 1079 (7th Cir. 2000). However, a position at odds with the Commissioner's own rulings is not substantially justified. Golembiewski, 382 F.3d at 724.

The Seventh Circuit recently addressed the issue of substantial justification in affirming a denial of EAJA fees. See Bassett v. Astrue, -- F.3d --, 2011 WL 2083979 (7th Cir. May 27, 2011). In Bassett, the ALJ found the claimant capable of light work prior to his 55th birthday, but failed to explain how she arrived at that precise date. Id. at * 1. The district court remanded the case for further explanation of how the ALJ determined the onset date of disability, but found that the ALJ's opinion was otherwise adequate in her discussion of the evidence. Id. The claimant then brought a petition for EAJA fees, which the district court denied because the Commissioner's position was deemed substantially justified. Id. The Seventh Circuit upheld the denial of EAJA fees because the deficiency in the ALJ's opinion amounted only to an articulation error. Id. The Seventh Circuit found that "it typically takes something more egregious than just a run-of-the-mill error in articulation to make the Commissioner's position unjustified ...." Id. at *2. That shortcoming alone usually is not enough to make the ALJ's opinion or the Commissioner's defense of it unjustified. Id. Rather, it typically takes something like an ALJ "ignoring or mischaracterizing a significant body of evidence, or the commissioner's defending the ALJ's opinion on a forbidden basis" to render the Commissioner's position unjustified. Id.

In determining whether the Commissioner has met his burden of proving that his position was substantially justified, the court must treat the case as "an inclusive whole rather than as atomized line items." Hudson v. Astrue, 2010 WL 335318, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 29, 2010) . As such, the court must make a "global assessment of the Commissioner's conduct rather then engage in 'argument counting.'" Id. (quoting Stewart, 561 F.3d at 683). However, a court must award fees under the EAJA if either the Commissioner's position or pre-litigation ...


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