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Margrit Eakin v. Michael J. Astrue

December 12, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Young B. Kim


On June 30, 2011, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded this court's decision denying Plaintiff Margrit Eakin's application for disability insurance benefits. Eakin now seeks an award of attorney's fees and costs pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), for the prosecution of her appeal before this court and the Seventh Circuit. For the following reasons, Eakin's motion is granted:


In January 2006, Eakin filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging that she was disabled as of August 2004 as a result of severe arthritis and pain in her left hip. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 113-15, 131.) When the Social Security Administration denied her application, (id. at 62-65, 69-73), Eakin sought and was granted a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), (id. at 15-59, 74). After considering Eakin's evidence and consulting a vocational expert, the ALJ issued a decision in November 2008 finding that Eakin was not disabled. (Id. at 8-14.) Eakin requested a review of the ALJ's decision, but in March 2009, the Appeals Council denied her request, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1-3.); 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

Eakin sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision and the parties consented to the jurisdiction of this court. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). In October 2009, Eakin filed a motion for summary judgment asking this court to reverse the Commissioner's decision and award benefits, or in the alternative, to remand the decision for further proceedings because the ALJ committed numerous legal errors. (R. 21, 22.) In November 2009, the government filed a cross-motion for summary judgment requesting that this court affirm the ALJ's decision. (R. 24, 25.)

In July 2010, two months after this matter was reassigned to the undersigned Magistrate Judge, this court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order affirming the Commissioner's final decision. (R. 29.) Next, in September 2010, Eakin appealed this court's decision. (R. 31.) On June 30, 2011, the Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment of this court and remanded the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings after concluding that the ALJ's opinion was too cursory to permit meaningful appellate review and contained improper medical and credibility determinations. (R. 40.)

In September 2011, Eakin's counsel filed the instant motion seeking $22,275.79 in attorney's fees and costs for the prosecution of her case. (R. 42.) The government challenges Eakin's entitlement to fees, asserting that its position in defending the decision of the ALJ was substantially justified. (R. 49.)


A. Standard of Review

This court may award fees under EAJA if the following four elements are met: (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); Stewart v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 679, 683 (7th Cir. 2009). Here, the parties' dispute centers around the issue of whether the Commissioner's position was substantially justified. It is the Commissioner's burden to demonstrate that both its pre-litigation conduct-which includes the decisions of the ALJ and Appeals Council-and its litigation position were substantially justified. Golembiewski v. Barnhart, 382 F.3d 721, 724 (7th Cir. 2004).

As the Seventh Circuit has acknowledged, determining whether the government's position was substantially justified presents a difficult line-drawing task. See United States v. Thouvenot, Wade & Moerschen, Inc., 596 F.3d 378, 381 (7th Cir. 2010). "The case must have sufficient merit to negate an inference that the government was coming down on its small opponent in a careless and oppressive fashion." Id. at 381-82. To negate that inference, the government must show the following: "(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). Put differently, the government must show that its position was "justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Although this determination requires the court to look to both the government's pre-litigation conduct and litigation position, it will "make only one determination for the entire civil action." Conrad, 434 F.3d at 990.

When the Commissioner's decision is reversed by the Court of Appeals, the court "should analyze the actual merits of the government's litigating position." Golembiewski, 382 F.3d at 724. In other words, the focus of the court's EAJA review must be on the Court of Appeals' evaluation of the merits of the government's position and not on the district court's evaluation. Thouvenot, 596 F.3d at 384 (the court "must accept the appellate court's view of the merits as the premise for evaluating the government's position"); see also Smith ex. rel. Smith v. Apfel, No. 99 C 1139, 2001 WL 199505, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 28, 2001) (citing United States v. Paisley, 957 F.2d 1161, 1167 (4th Cir. 1992) (the decision of the Court of Appeals and, more importantly, its rationales "are the most powerful available indicators of the strength, hence reasonableness, of the ultimately rejected position")). The Seventh Circuit has indicated that "[s]trong language against the government's position in an opinion discussing the merits of a key issue is evidence in support of an award of EAJA fees." Golembiewski, 382 F.3d at 724. If it is apparent from the opinion that the Seventh Circuit did not view the case as being close, then the government's position lacked substantial justification. Thouvenot, 596 F.3d at 384.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit's evaluation of the Commissioner's denial of Eakin's application for disability insurance benefits identified three major defects in the ALJ's decision. Eakin v. Astrue, 432 Fed.Appx. 607 (7th Cir. 2011). First, the Seventh Circuit found that the ALJ's RFC determination fell short of the evaluation standards of Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p and the requirement that the ALJ minimally articulate the basis for her conclusion that Eakin was capable of performing sedentary work. Second, the Seventh Circuit determined that the ALJ improperly discredited Dr. Dennis Mess's opinion and failed to follow the correct legal standard in determining what weight to ...

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