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Grantham v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 11, 2017

SHAWN RENE GRANTHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HON. CARMEN E. GARZA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff Shawn Rene Grantham's Motion for Attorney Fees Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, with Memorandum in Support (the “Motion”), (Doc. 25), filed February 21, 2017; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Motion for an Award of Attorney's Fees Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (the “Response”), (Doc. 26), filed March 7, 2017; and Plaintiff's Reply in Support of Motion for Attorney Fees Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (the “Reply”), (Doc. 29), filed March 31, 2017. Having reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and relevant law, the Court finds that Plaintiff's Motion should be GRANTED.

         I. Background

         On December 1, 2010, Mr. Grantham filed applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits, alleging disability commencing on February 1, 2009. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 86-88). His claim for benefits was initially denied and again upon reconsideration. (AR 109-112, 113-116, 124-126, 127-130). A request for a hearing was filed, (AR 131-132), and a hearing was held on April 15, 2014 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Barry O'Melinn. (AR 34-85). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, (AR 17-33), and Mr. Grantham filed an application for review by the Appeals Council, which was denied. (AR 1-6).

         Thereafter, Mr. Grantham appealed to this Court, arguing that the ALJ committed reversible, legal error by (1) failing to perform a function-by-function analysis of his work-related abilities; (2) rejecting Mr. Grantham's Outpatient Discharge Instructions; (3) failing to give adequate reasons for discounting an examining physician's opinion; and (4) formulating a credibility determination that is contrary to the substantial evidence in the record. (Doc. 16). Because the ALJ did not perform an appropriate function-by-function analysis, the Court remanded the case to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) for further proceedings in its Memorandum Opinion and Order (the “Order”). (Doc. 23).

         Mr. Grantham now moves this Court for attorney's fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d) (“EAJA”). (Doc. 25). He argues that an award of fees is appropriate because he is the prevailing party, his net worth is less than $2, 000, 000, and the Commissioner's position in defending the action was not substantially justified. (Doc. 25 at 1).

         The Commissioner responds that Mr. Grantham's request for fees under EAJA should be denied because her position in this case was substantially justified. (Doc. 26 at 1). Specifically, the Commissioner maintains that it was reasonable for the ALJ to incorporate the definition of light work into his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) analysis, and it was reasonable for the Commissioner to argue that the ALJ incorporated standing and walking requirements in the RFC. (Doc. 26 at 4). Additionally, the Commissioner contends that the vocational expert (“VE”) clearly understood Mr. Grantham's limitations and incorporated them into her findings. (Doc. 26 at 5).

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to EAJA, a court is required to award attorney's fees if: “(1) plaintiff is a ‘prevailing party'; (2) the position of the United States was not ‘substantially justified'; and (3) there are no special circumstances that make an award of fees unjust.” Hackett v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 1166, 1172 (10th Cir. 2007) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A)). Here, the Commissioner only disputes whether her position was substantially justified.

         “The test for substantial justification in this circuit is one of reasonableness in law and fact.” Hackett, 475 F.3d at 1172 (citing Gilbert v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 1391, 1394 (10th Cir. 1995)). In order to be substantially justified, the government's position must be “justified in substance or in the main-that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.” Hadden v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 1266, 1267 (10th Cir. 1988) (citing Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988)). “The term position includes the government's position both in the underlying agency action and during any subsequent litigation.” Hadden, 851 F.2d at 1267 (internal citations omitted).

         “When an area of law is ‘unclear or in flux, it is more likely that the government's position will be substantially justified.'” Cherry v. Barnhart, No. 04-5059, 125 Fed.Appx. 913, 916 (10th Cir. Jan. 24, 2005) (unpublished) (citing Martinez v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 815 F.2d 1381, 1382 (10th Cir. 1987)). Indeed, “the government's position can be justified even though it is not correct.” Hackett, 475 F.3d at 1172 (citing Pierce, 487 U.S. at 566 n.2). “The government bears the burden of showing that its position was substantially justified.” Gilbert, 45 F.3d at 1394 (internal citations omitted).

         B. The Commissioner's Position was not Substantially Justified

         The issue here is whether the Commissioner met her burden to show that she was substantially justified in failing to perform a function-by-function analysis. Hartter v. Apfel, No. 99-3095, 202 F.3d 282, *2 (10th Cir. Jan. 11, ...


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