Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

King v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 22, 2018

TROY KING, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney Fees Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, with Memorandum in Support [Doc. 28] (“Motion”), filed on December 14, 2017. The Commissioner responded on December 18, 2017. [Doc. 29]. Plaintiff replied on January 11, 2018. [Doc. 30]. The parties have consented to the undersigned's entering final judgment in this case. [Doc. 8]. Plaintiff moves the Court for an award of $5, 946.40 in attorney fees. [Doc. 30] at 3. Having reviewed the record, the briefing, and the relevant law, the Court finds that the Motion is well-taken and should be granted. Plaintiff will be awarded $5, 946.40 in attorney fees.

         Background

         Plaintiff's claim for supplemental security income was denied by Defendant, and he timely filed suit in this Court. The Court found that the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessed by the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was not supported by substantial evidence. [Doc. 26] at 10. Three sources who evaluated Plaintiff agreed that he had certain moderate limitations in functioning. The ALJ, however, rejected these limitations because Plaintiff's “mental health treatment had been conservative (including counseling and no inpatient hospitalizations), he had been ‘coping with his depression[, ] and [was] seeking to be a good father.'” [Doc. 26] at 10 (quoting Tr. 33). The Court found that these reasons amounted to no more than a mere scintilla of evidence because they had little, if any, bearing on the areas of functioning at issue (e.g., being punctual, working in coordination with others, completing a normal workday without unreasonable rest periods, interacting with the general public, accepting instructions from supervisors, getting along with co-workers or peers, or responding appropriately to changes in the workplace). Id. Further, the Court found that the ALJ's reasons for rejecting the moderate limitations were overwhelmed by the three source opinions, all of which agreed on the limitations. Id.

         The Court was not persuaded by Defendant's arguments in opposition. First, Defendant implied that the ALJ was not required to account for the disputed limitations as long as the RFC assessment was consistent with the doctors' “ultimate opinions that Plaintiff could do detailed but not complex work.” [Doc. 21] at 8 (citing Tr. 33-34); see Id. at 10-11. The Court rejected this argument. There simply is no authority permitting an ALJ to ignore certain findings as long as he addresses an “ultimate opinion.” [Doc. 26] at 11 (citing Silva v. Colvin, 203 F.Supp.3d 1153 (D.N.M. 2016) (thoroughly explaining the multiple sources of authority requiring ALJs to evaluate source opinions in their entirety and rejecting the argument that an ALJ may ignore any portion of an opinion)). The Court held that the ALJ in this case was required to address the source opinions in their entirety.

         Second, Defendant argued that there was no conflict between the moderate limitations and the RFC, which limited Plaintiff to unskilled work. [Doc. 21] at 10-11. Therefore, any inconsistency between the source opinions and the RFC did not actually prejudice Plaintiff. Id. The Court held, however, that the moderate limitations at issue were not consistent with unskilled work. [Doc. 26] at 12 (comparing POMS § DI 25020.010(A)(3) (unskilled work requires, on a sustained basis, the ability to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work situations, as well as deal with changes in a routine work setting), with Tr. 69-70 (Dr. Blacharsh's assessment of moderate limitations in the ability to, inter alia, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, and deal with changes in the work setting), 81-82 (Dr. Cox's assessment of moderate limitations in the ability to, inter alia, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, and deal with changes in the work setting), Tr. 374-75 (counselor Hallford's assessment of moderate or marked limitations in the ability to, inter alia, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes, and deal with changes in the work setting)). Accordingly, on September 19, 2017, the Court reversed the Commissioner's final decision, granted Plaintiff's motion, and remanded the case for further proceedings. [Doc. 26] at 12-13.

         Plaintiff now requests an award of attorney fees in the amount of $5, 946.40 under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”). [Doc. 30] at 3. The Commissioner opposes any award because, she argues, her position was substantially justified. [Doc. 29] at 3-5.

         Standard

         EAJA provides for an award of attorney fees to a plaintiff when: (1) she is a prevailing party, (2) the position of the United States was not substantially justified, and (3) no special circumstances would make the award unjust. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A); Hackett v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 1166, 1172 (10th Cir. 2007). Here, the parties do not dispute that Plaintiff is a prevailing party or that no special circumstances would make the award unjust. Instead, they disagree about whether the Commissioner's position was substantially justified and whether the fees requested are reasonable. [Docs. 29, 31, 32].

         The Commissioner bears the burden of showing that her position was substantially justified. Hackett, 475 F.3d at 1172. Her “position” collectively refers to her positions at the administrative level and before the federal courts in a given case. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(D). EAJA fees generally should be awarded if the ALJ's reasons for denying benefits were unreasonable, “even if the government [subsequently] advanced a reasonable litigation position.” Hackett, 475 F.3d at 1174 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “The test for substantial justification in this circuit is one of reasonableness in law and fact.” Id. at 1172 (quoting Gilbert v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 1391, 1394 (10th Cir. 1995)). Substantial justification is “satisfied if there is a genuine dispute or if reasonable people could differ as to the appropriateness of the contested action.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (internal quotation marks, citations, and brackets omitted). A district court's remand order does not mean, ipso facto, that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified; that is, her “position can be justified even though it is not correct.” Hackett, 475 F.3d at 1172 (quoting Pierce, 487 U.S. at 566).

         Similarly, a district court's order affirming a final decision by the Commissioner does not itself mean that the Commissioner's position was substantially justified. Gatson v. Bowen, 854 F.2d 379, 381 n.1 (10th Cir. 1988). For example, when the agency applies the wrong legal standard, the Commissioner “[cannot] show that h[er] position was substantially justified, either in making the initial legal error or in arguing in the ensuing litigation that there was no error.” Chester v. Apfel, 1 F. App'x 792, 795 (10th Cir. 2001); see Gatson, 854 F.2d at 380-81, 381 n.1 (holding that the Commissioner's position could not be substantially justified where the agency applied an outdated legal standard-despite the district court's initial affirmance).

         Defendant was not substantially justified in urging an impermissible post hoc reason to support the ALJ's decision.

         Defendant argues that her positions in the merits briefing were substantially justified. She defended the ALJ's rejection of the disputed moderate limitations; she argued that his reasons were adequate. The reasons given by the ALJ were that “Plaintiff received only limited outpatient treatment for his condition and was coping with his symptoms and seeking to be a good father to his young son.” [Doc. 29] at 3 (citing [Doc. 21] at 9). The Court found that these reasons amounted to no more than a mere scintilla of evidence because they had little, if any, bearing on the areas of functioning at issue (e.g., being punctual, working in coordination with others, completing a normal workday without unreasonable rest periods, interacting with the general public, accepting instructions from supervisors, getting along with co-workers or peers, or responding appropriately to ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.