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Starks v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 18, 2014

LARRY STARKS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MARY M. ROWLAND, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Larry Starks filed this action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for application for Supple-mental Security Income (SSI). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the Unit-ed States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). On April 21, 2014, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court reversed the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and remanded the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Plaintiff's counsel now seeks to recover his attorney's fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. For the reasons set forth herein, the application is granted.


Plaintiff applied for SSI on May 22, 2009, alleging that he became disabled on December 1, 2007, due to Crohn's disease, status post right hemicolectomy, a histo-ry of ankylosing spondylitis, a cataract in the left eye, dysthymic disorder, anxiety, and depression. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially, and on reconsideration. Following a hearing, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits, finding that he was not suffering from a disability as defined by the SSA. After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, he sought judicial review.

On April 21, 2014, the Court reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded the mat-ter to the Commissioner for further proceedings. The Court determined that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ failed to proper-ly evaluate the opinion of the treating physician and did not assess Plaintiff's credi-bility with due regard for the full range of medical evidence. Furthermore, the ALJ did not construct a proper logical bridge connecting the evidence and Plaintiff's re-sidual functional capacity.

Plaintiff's counsel now moves for attorney's fees and costs under EAJA. Counsel seeks $9, 656.50 for 53.1 hours of work on the case (51.6 hours of attorney time at $184.38 per hour and 1.5 hours of legal assistant time at $95 per hour) as well as $19.50 in costs. (Mot. ¶ 11 & Ex. C).[1]


EAJA provides that a district court may award attorney's fees where (1) the claimant was a "prevailing party, " (2) the government's position was not "substan-tially justified, " (3) no special circumstances make an award unjust, and (4) the claimant filed a timely and complete application with the district court. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A); Stewart v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 679, 683 (7th Cir. 2009). EAJA allows for an award of "reasonable attorney fees." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A). The Supreme Court indicated in INS v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 161 (1990), that the district court's task of determining what fee is reasonable under EAJA is essentially the same as that described in Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424 (1983). Under Hensley, the plaintiff bears the burden of providing accurate documentation and demonstrating that the fee request is reasonable. 461 U.S. at 437. Nevertheless, "[w]here a plaintiff has obtained excellent results, his attorney should recover a fully compensable fee." Id. at 435.


The Commissioner does not assert that her position opposing Plaintiff's applica-tion for SSI was substantially justified.[2] (Resp. 1). Instead, the Commissioner ob-jects to the hourly rate sought as unjustified by the EJEA provision for cost of living adjustments. ( Id. 3-4). The Commissioner also asserts that the number of hours ex-pended was excessive for the complexity of the case and experience of the attorney. ( Id. 4-5). Finally, the Commissioner opposes the direct payment of any fees to Plaintiff's attorney, arguing that direct payment would bypass the objective of matching litigants to any debts they may owe the federal government. ( Id. 5-8). In support of her assertions, the Commissioner makes a number of arguments, which the Court will address seriatim.

A. Hourly Rate and Cost-of-Living Adjustments Under EAJA

EAJA prescribes a maximum rate of $125 per hour for attorney's fees. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A)(ii). However, the statute allows a court to award a higher rate when "the court determines that an increase in the cost of living [since 1996, when the current version of the act was passed] or a special factor, such as the limited availa-bility of qualified attorneys for the proceedings involved, justifies a higher fee." Id .; accord Mathews-Sheets v. Astrue, 653 F.3d 560, 562 (7th Cir. 2011). As to the cost-of-living factor, EAJA does not "create an entitlement to an inflation adjustment." Mathews-Sheets, 653 F.3d at 563. Instead, to establish a cost-of-living enhancement, "the lawyer seeking such an adjustment must show that inflation has increased the cost of providing adequate legal services to a person seeking relief against the gov-ernment." Id.

Here, Counsel seeks an hourly rate of $184.38 for attorney work performed on behalf of Plaintiff in this action. (Mot. ¶ 11). In support of this rate, Counsel relies on (1) the Consumer Price Index (CPI) detailing the effects of inflation on a nation-wide basis from 1996 until December 2012, the month in which the majority of legal work was performed in this action; (2) the Commissioner's own increase in the max-imum fee agreement limit for work performed at the administration level by 50% since 1996; (3) his affirmation that his noncontingency hourly rate has increased by 67% since 1996; (4) affidavits from six other local attorneys who charge hourly rates ranging from $250 to $550 for handling similar cases; and (5) his affirmation that since 1996, his office expenses, including rent, salaries, health insurance, legal re-search tools, continuing legal education, and office supplies, have increased signifi-cantly due to inflation. ( Id. ¶¶ 11, 14, 16, 17). The Commissioner has not presented any evidence in rebuttal. Moreover, other courts in the Northern District of Illinois have found that similar supporting evidence justifies an inflation adjustment to the EAJA hourly rate. See Brent v. Astrue, No. 11 C 964, 2012 WL 6685688, at *3 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 19, 2012) (collecting cases). Accordingly, the Court finds that Counsel's un-contradicted evidence adequately demonstrates that a cost-of-living increase from the $125 per hour statutory rate is justified.

The Commissioner also contends that the Court should rely on the Chicago met-ropolitan area CPI rather than the all urban consumers CPI (CPI-U) in determining the appropriate cost of living adjustment. (Resp. 4). But district courts in the Sev-enth Circuit have routinely held that "the CPI-U is an appropriate index by which to show that the cost of living in this region has indeed increased to the degree of the requested adjustment." Ibarra-Montufar v. Colvin, 12 CV 0736, 2013 WL 6507865, at *2 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 12, 2013) (collecting cases); see, e.g., Bias v. Astrue, No. 11 CV 2247, 2013 WL 615804, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 15, 2013) (approving fee calcula-tion of $181.25 per hour based on the CPI-U index); Seabron v. Astrue, No. 11 CV 1078, 2012 WL 1985681, at *4 (N.D. Ill. June 4, 2012) (approving the use of the na-tional CPI over the regional CPI); see also Hamrick v. Astrue, No. 09 CV 0179, 2010 WL 3862464, at *3 (N.D. Ind. Sept. 27, 2010) ("[I]t appears that district courts in the Seventh Circuit have permitted the use of either the national or regional index, provided that plaintiff's counsel justifies the increased rate that he ...

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