United States District Court, D. Minnesota
Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge
matter is before the Court on Sergey F.'s Motion for
Attorney Fees - Application for an Award of Fees under the
Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”). Mot., ECF
No. 25. The motion asks the Court to approve attorney's
fees in the amount of $14, 025, plus $400 in costs, for a
total award of $14, 425. The Commissioner objects to the
motion, arguing that its position was substantially justified
and that the fees and costs sought by Mr. F is excessive.
Def.'s Opp'n, ECF No. 32. For the reasons that
follow, the motion is granted.
September 27, 2019, the Court issued an Order granting Mr.
F's motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 22. The Court
found that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
assigned to Mr. F's case impermissibly dismissed his
treating providers' medical opinions. Specifically, the
Court rejected each of the rationales the ALJ gave for
steeply discounting the opinion provided by Registered Nurse
Jennifer Wolfe, who has been largely responsible for Mr.
F's psychiatric treatment for many years. Contrary to the
ALJ's characterization, the Court concluded that: Nurse
Wolfe's opinion was not in a check-the-box format
unworthy of any deference; her treatment notes were not
merely reflective of periodic treatment and medication
adjustment; and her opinion was consistent with the other
evidence in the record. In addition, the Court found that
Nurse Wolfe's opinion was consistent with the opinion
provided by Licensed Clinical Social Worker David Schmitt,
who provided Mr. F with psychotherapy for over a year. The
ALJ's focus on short periods of improvement in Mr.
F's functioning did not constitute substantial evidence
supporting discounting the opinion evidence and denying Mr.
F's application for benefits.
Social Security claimant prevails in federal litigation, he
or she may recover fees under the EAJA if the
Commissioner's position was not substantially justified
and several other conditions are met. See Goad v.
Barnhart, 398 F.3d 1021, 1025 (8th Cir. 2005). The
Commissioner has the burden of showing that the denial of
benefits was substantially justified. Lauer v.
Barnhart, 321 F.3d 762, 764 (8th Cir. 2003); Jackson
v. Bowen, 807 F.2d 127, 128 (8th Cir. 1986). This means
the Commissioner must show that its position has a reasonable
basis in both law and fact. See Pierce v. Underwood,
487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). The mere fact that the Commissioner
has lost on the merits of a Social Security appeal does not
mean that its position lacked substantial justification.
Welter v. Sullivan, 941 F.2d 674, 676 (8th Cir.
1991) (discussing the difference between the
“substantial evidence standard” for review of a
denial of benefits and the substantial justification standard
under the EAJA).
“reasonable fees and expenses” may be awarded to
a prevailing party. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(b). The ultimate
amount of an award is within the district court's
discretion. Johnson v. Sullivan, 919 F.2d 503, 505
(8th Cir. 1990).
Commissioner argues that its position was substantially
justified for two overarching reasons. First, he asserts that
it was reasonable to defend the ALJ's rejection of Nurse
Wolfe's opinion based on its “cursory nature,
” which Mr. F's attorney “surely knew
… could produce weak evidence.” Def.'s
Opp'n at 3. The Court finds the Commissioner's
position on this issue was not substantially justified. As
noted in the Court's summary-judgment Order, the form
used was “neither conclusory nor unexplained, ”
and Nurse Wolfe provided written explanations for the
findings reflected in the checkboxes on the form. ECF No. 22
the Commissioner argues that it was reasonable to defend the
denial of benefits based on the existence of evidence in the
record that supported the ALJ's findings that Nurse
Wolfe's opinion was inconsistent with her own treatment
notes and the record as a whole. Def.'s Opp'n at 3-5.
The Court rejected the Commissioner's arguments at
summary judgment because it was “clear that Nurse
Wolfe's treatment notes are far more than just periodic
adjustments, ” and instead represented a
“lengthy, in-depth, and frequent treatment
relationship….” ECF No. 22 at 10-11. Moreover,
the Court found that her opinion was consistent with the
overall record, and that the ALJ erroneously relied on only
“short periods of improvement in Mr. F's
functioning” that were insufficient to place his
rejection of Nurse Wolfe's opinion within the reasonable
zone of choice. See Id. at 11. Based on these
conclusions, the Court concludes that the Commissioner's
position was not clearly reasonable because it was not well
founded in fact. Lauer, 321 F.3d at 764 (“The
standard is whether the Secretary's position is
‘clearly reasonable, well founding in law and
fact, solid though not necessarily correct.'”)
these reasons, the Court finds that the Commissioner has
failed to carry his burden of showing that the denial of
benefits in this case was substantially justified. Therefore,
an award of reasonable attorney's fees and costs is
of Fees Requested
Commissioner next argues that any award of EAJA fees should
be reduced from the amount Mr. F requests. Def.'s
Opp'n at 6-11. Specifically, the Commissioner contends:
(1) the hours claimed are excessive; (2) the issues were not
overly complex and the record was not voluminous; and (3) the
case did not demand specialized attorney knowledge or skill
beyond that expected for an attorney practicing in the Social
Security area. Id. at 7-9. The Commissioner points
to specific time entries that reflect duplication of effort
and others that combine actions that are clerical or routine
with more substantive matters, thereby making it difficult to
assess the reasonableness of the attorney's fees claimed.
Id. at 9-10. Finally, the Commissioner asserts that
any award should be reduced because the time claimed for
drafting a 10-page reply brief is excessive and Mr. F's
counsel has used similar language in briefing filed in Social
Security appeals for other clients. Id. at 10-11.
Court concludes that the EAJA fees requested in this case
should be reduced. In determining the reasonableness of fees
by applying a lodestar method,  “courts need not, and
indeed should not, become green-eyeshade accountants …
[and] the determination of fees should not result in a second
major litigation.” In re RFC, 399 ...