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Reyes-Winfrey v. Saul

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 15, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney Fees Pursuant to Equal Access to Justice Act. Doc. 27. On October 21, 2019, the Commissioner responded in opposition to the motion. Doc. 28. Plaintiff did not file a reply. Having reviewed the Motion and Response, the Court will DENY the Motion.

         I. Procedural Posture

         On October 5, 2018, Plaintiff filed suit in this court, seeking reversal and remand of the decision by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) to deny Plaintiff Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (“SSDI”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Doc. 20. Plaintiff argued several points of error by the ALJ in denying her application. In pertinent part, Plaintiff argued that the ALJ failed to incorporate a moderate limitation on Plaintiff's ability to interact with the general public in the assessment of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), despite substantial evidence to support the limitation. See Id. at 17-18. In response to this point, the Commissioner asserted that any error in failing to incorporate the public-interaction limitation was harmless, because many of the jobs relied on by the ALJ in concluding that Plaintiff could still work did not require a significant amount of public interaction. Doc. 22 at 18-21.

         On July 23, 2019, this Court granted remand. Doc. 25. The Court found that the ALJ erred in failing to incorporate the public-interaction limitation or to explain the reason for omitting it. Id. at 7. More specifically, the ALJ failed to pose hypotheticals to the vocational expert (“VE”) regarding Plaintiff's limitation on public interaction. Id. at 8. Because the VE's testimony was incomplete, the conclusion that Plaintiff could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers was not supported by substantial evidence. Id.

         The Court also rejected the Commissioner's assertion of harmless error, based on the precedent of Hargis v. Sullivan, 945 F.2d 1482 (10th Cir. 1991). Doc. 25 at 8. In Hargis, the Tenth Circuit held that, where a claimant suffers from mental impairments, the SSA must rely on VE testimony to establish the existence of jobs that the claimant can perform. 945 F.2d at 1492. Without support from the VE's testimony, the Commissioner did not carry his burden of proving that Plaintiff can perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See doc. 25 at 8.

         II. Legal Standards

         Under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412, a plaintiff in a civil action against a United States agency may be awarded the cost of reasonable attorney fees if: (1) the plaintiff is the prevailing party; (2) the position of the agency was not substantially justified; and (3) there are no special circumstances that would make the award unjust. Hackett v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 1166, 1172 (10th Cir. 2007). The agency bears the burden of showing that its position was substantially justified. Id.

         “Substantially justified” means “justified in substance or in the main.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). To be substantially justified, there must be a “reasonable basis both in law and fact” for the agency's position. Id.

         III. Parties' Positions

         Plaintiff requests attorney fees in the amount of $6, 934.50, for 34.5 hours billed at the rate of $201.00 per hour. Doc. 27 at 4. Plaintiff alleges that she is the prevailing party, her net worth is less than $2, 000, 000.00, and the SSA's position was not substantially justified. Id. at 1. Plaintiff has supplied an affidavit from her attorney detailing the hours expended on Plaintiff's motion to remand. Doc. 27-1. Plaintiff asserts that the requested fee is reasonable and within the range approved by other courts. Doc. 27 at 3.

         In response, the Commissioner argues that the SSA's position was substantially justified, therefore no attorney fees should be awarded. Doc. 28 at 2. Although the ALJ committed reversible error, the Commissioner argues that he cured the ALJ's unreasonable conduct by taking a reasonable litigation position that the ALJ's error was harmless. Id. at 3. In the alternative, the Commissioner requests that any fee awarded to Plaintiff be reduced for unreasonableness to no more than $4, 848.00, or 24 hours billed at $202.00 per hour. Id. at 11.

         Because the Court agrees with the Commissioner that his position in litigating this case was substantially justified, the Court does not reach the question of the reasonableness of Plaintiff's requested fee award.

         IV. ...

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