United States District Court, D. New Mexico
JENNIFER M. GABALDON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA UNITED STATE MAGISTRATE JUDGE
MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff Jennifer
M. Gabaldon's Motion for Attorney Fees and Costs
Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, With Memorandum
in Support, (Doc. 23), filed July 17, 2017;
Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Motion for
Attorney Fees Under Equal Access to Justice Act, (Doc.
24), filed July 19, 2017; and Plaintiff's Reply in
Support of Motion for Attorney Fees Pursuant to the Equal
Access to Justice Act, (Doc. 25), filed August 1, 2017.
Having reviewed the Motion, the Response, the Reply, and the
relevant law, the Court finds that Plaintiff's Motion is
well-taken and should be GRANTED.
February 13, 2013, Ms. Gabaldon filed an application for
disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), alleging
disability beginning February 6, 2013. (Administrative Record
“AR” 119). Her application was denied initially,
(AR 95-101), upon reconsideration, (AR 102-115), and
following a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”), (AR 130). Ms. Gabaldon thereafter filed
for review by the Appeals Council, (AR 57-60), which was
denied, (AR 1-7), making the ALJ's decision the final
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (the “Commissioner”).
Gabaldon then appealed to this Court, arguing the ALJ failed
to incorporate portions of the medical opinion of State
agency medical consultant Charles Bridges, Ph.D., into Ms.
Gabaldon's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). (Doc. 16 at 2). Finding that the ALJ
failed to properly consider Dr. Bridges' medical opinion,
the Court reversed and remanded the Commissioner's
decision. (Doc. 21).
Gabaldon now moves the Court for attorney's fees pursuant
to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28
U.S.C. § 2412(d). (Doc. 23). She argues that an award of
attorney's fees is appropriate because she was the
prevailing party, her net worth is less than $2, 000, 000.00,
and the Commissioner's position in defending the action
was not substantially justified. Id. at 1.
Standard of Review
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. (Doc. 24).
test for substantial justification in this circuit is one of
reasonableness in law and fact.” Id. 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.” Id.
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, 125 Fed.Appx. 913, 916 (10th Cir. 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
The Commissioner's Position Was Not Substantially
Court reversed and remanded the ALJ's decision because
the ALJ failed to adequately consider Dr. Bridges'
medical opinion. (Doc. 21 at 8-13). Dr. Bridges performed a
Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment
(“MRFC”) of Ms. Gabaldon's impairments in
which he diagnosed Ms. Gabaldon with affective disorders,
anxiety disorders, and substance addiction disorders. (AR
107). In Section I of the MRFC, Dr. Bridges found that Ms.
Gabaldon has several moderate limitations and that she is
markedly limited in her ability to interact appropriately
with the general public. (AR 110-11). In Section III of the
MRFC, Dr. Bridges explained several of these limitations in
narrative form. As to Ms. Gabaldon's sustained
concentration and persistence capacities, Dr. Bridges stated
Ms. Gabaldon “requires a work setting where
distractions are minimal. She can carry out simple tasks for
a normal workday over a normal workweek.” (AR 111).
With regard to Ms. Gabaldon's social interactional
capacities, Dr. Bridges noted that she “can interact
appropriately with coworkers and supervisors on a superficial
basis. She requires a supportive supervisor.” (AR 111).
Finally, Dr. Bridges specified that Ms. Gabaldon's
depression affects “her concentration and memory”
and stated that she is limited in her “ability to carry
out detailed tasks. Her PTSD and anxiety is affecting [her]
ability to interact with others. She can adapt to a work
situation with minimal changes.” (AR 112).
decision, the ALJ discussed the findings of Dr. Bridges and
stated that she gave his opinion “great weight.”
(AR 127-28). However, the ALJ translated Dr. Bridges'
findings into only two nonexertional limitations:
understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple,
repetitive tasks; and having only superficial contact with
others. (AR 123). The Court found that this RFC failed to
properly capture Dr. Bridges' Section III findings that
Ms. Gabaldon “requires a work setting where
distractions are minimal” and “requires a