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Gabaldon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 16, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS 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.

         I. Background

         On 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”).

         Ms. 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).

         Ms. 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.

         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. (Doc. 24).

         “The 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.

         “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, 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 omitted).

         B. The Commissioner's Position Was Not Substantially Justified

         The 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).

         In her 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 ...

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