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Inboden v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

April 5, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant. [1]



         This matter is before the Court on plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act. (Doc. 31). Defendant filed a response in opposition at Doc. 33 and plaintiff filed a reply at Doc. 34.

         Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. §2412(d)(1)(A), the Court shall award attorney's fees and expenses to a prevailing party in a civil action against the United States, including proceedings for judicial review of agency action, unless the government's position was substantially justified. The hourly rate for attorney's fees is not to exceed $125.00 per hour “unless the court determines that an increase in the cost of living or a special factor, such as the limited availability of qualified attorneys for the proceedings involved, justifies a higher fee.” §2412(d)(2)(A).

         This case was remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Plaintiff is, therefore, the prevailing party. See, Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 302 (1993).

         In her response to the motion, the Commissioner argues the Court should not award fees because the government's position was substantially justified and plaintiff's fees sought are unreasonable.

         1. Substantially Justified

         The EAJA does not define the term “substantially justified, ” and the Seventh Circuit has recognized that its meaning in this context is not “self-evident.” U.S. v. Thouvenot, Wade & Moerschen, Inc., 596 F.3d 378, 381 (7th Cir. 2010). However, in view of the purpose of the Act, substantially justified means something more than “not frivolous;” the government's position “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 381-382.

         The government's position is substantially justified where it had a “reasonable basis in law and fact, that is, if a reasonable person could believe the position was correct.” Golembiewski v. Barnhart, 382 F.3d 721, 724 (7th Cir. 2004)(internal citations omitted). The Commissioner bears the burden of demonstrating that her position was substantially justified, and the Court must make a determination based on an assessment of both the government's pre-litigation and litigation conduct, including the decision of the ALJ. Id.

         The evidence in the administrative record and the specifics of the ALJ's decision are discussed in detail in the Memorandum and Order remanding the case, Doc. 29.

         Plaintiff argued that the ALJ erred in not giving appropriate weight to the physicians of record and the ALJ erred in assessing plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC). This Court found merit in plaintiff's first point and deferred ruling on the other point. This Court noted that the Commissioner violated the Chenery doctrine by defending the ALJ's decision on a ground that the agency had not relied on within its decision. Doc. 29, p. 21; See, SEC v. Chenery Corporation, 318 U.S. 80 (1943). The Court concluded, and the Commissioner conceded, that the ALJ failed to properly analyze plaintiff's migraine condition. The Court determined that the ALJ's reasons for rejecting the treating physician's opinions were not supported by the record and were based on a highly selective review of the medical evidence.

         The Commissioner characterizes the ALJ's errors with regard to the treating physician's opinions as “errors of articulation” and argues they do not necessitate a finding that the government's position was not substantially justified, Doc. 36, pp. 3-4. The Commissioner cites Stein v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 317, 319-320 (7th Cir. 1992), in support of this argument. However, Stein did not establish a per se rule that attorney's fees will not be awarded whenever the error was a failure to meet the articulation requirement. See, Conrad v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 987, 991 (7th Cir. 2006).

         The Commissioner also argues that this Court did not use “strong language” in its opinion and that the Court's analysis and language used suggests the case was remanded on relatively narrow grounds in relation to the agency's position as a whole. The Court agrees with plaintiff's rebuttal that the Court made it clear this was not a “close case.” The ALJ's errors within his opinion and the Commissioner's errors within her arguments violated long-standing legal precedent and as a result the Commissioner's position cannot be substantially justified. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 561 (1988); Golembiewski, 382 F.3d at 724; Stewart v. Astrue, 561 F.3d 679, 684 (7th Cir. 2009).

         The Commissioner fails to advance arguments that show her position was substantially justified as a whole. Gatimi v. Holder, 606 F.3d 344, 349-50 (7th Cir. 2010). She does not indicate how she had a rational ground for her arguments nor does she substantiate her claims that a genuine dispute exited. Therefore, the Court finds that plaintiff is entitled to an award of attorney's fees under the EAJA.

         2. Unre ...

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