The opinion of the court was delivered by: Trager, District Judge.
Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act,
28 U.S.C. § 2412(d) (1994 & Supp. 1996), plaintiff, Jose Cruz, moves for the
award of attorney's fees in relation to his successful appeal of
the Social Security Administration's decision denying Mr. Cruz
Supplemental Security Income benefits. Because the Commissioner's
position opposing remand was not substantially justified by the
evidence in the record, the motion is granted. However, because
some of the fees requested are excessive, the government's
request for reduction is also granted.
Plaintiff, Jose Cruz, filed an application for Supplemental
Security Income ("SSI") benefits in September of 1994. Following
denial of the application both initially and on reconsideration,
the case was considered by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")
Wallace Tannenbaum de novo. On April 2, 1996, after a hearing
at which Cruz appeared pro se, the ALJ determined that Cruz was
not disabled. On October 16, 1996, Cruz's request for review was
denied by the Appeals Council, and on October 31, 1996, Cruz,
having obtained counsel, filed a complaint in the Eastern
District of New York and obtained a remand on August 20, 1997.
See Cruz v. Callahan, Acting Commissioner Social Security
Administration, No. 96 Civ. 5357 (E.D.N.Y. Aug 20, 1997).
Cruz's claim of disability during the administrative process
was based on primarily physical disabilities. Cruz, a high school
graduate fluent in English, suffered from back pain, chest pain,
joint pain, partial numbness, and epileptic seizures, symptoms at
least partially the result of a motor vehicle accident in 1981.
He was also under treatment for alcoholism. Cruz complained that
the pain made it impossible for him to work. The ALJ found Cruz's
testimony as to pain not fully credible in light of the record.
He further found, considering both exertional and non-exertional
limitations, that Cruz had the capacity to perform sedentary
work, limited only by his inability to work around heights,
moving machinery and operating motor vehicles.*fn1 Finally, the
ALJ noted in
his decision that Cruz denied receiving psychiatric treatment.
The record before the ALJ contained numerous evaluations of
Cruz's mental health; all but one were focused on his alcoholism.
In only that one case did Cruz assert he was under psychiatric
treatment. He denied it numerous times. The record included a
Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment and a Psychiatric
Review Technique (from February 1995). The former evaluated Cruz
as "not significantly limited" in any of the categories in which
he was tested, the latter recommended "slight" restrictions as a
result of Cruz's alcoholism. In a 1993 patient history from
Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center ("Woodhull"), Cruz
denied having a history of psychiatric problems. In a history
taken as part of an alcoholism treatment program at Kings County
Hospital in 1993, Cruz admitted to one suicide attempt (in the
same year as his accident) and to an instance of assaultive
ideation. Finally, when examined in 1994 by two doctors from
Kings-M.D. Medical services, where he had gone "because sometimes
I feel dizzy," Rec. at 140, he told one doctor, Dr. Marcuzzo,
that he had no history of psychiatric treatment, suicide, or
depression, but that he "used to drink a lot." Id. Dr. Marcuzzo
concluded that Cruz's "allegations" were in keeping with the
doctor's "findings." However, as related in a report dated the
same day as Dr. Marcuzzo's (October 18, 1994), Cruz told another
doctor at Kings-M.D., Dr. Grossman, that he had a 12 year history
of psychiatric disorder, had attempted suicide, and was presently
being treated by Dr. Medkovich, a psychiatrist at Woodhull. Dr.
Grossman concluded that Cruz might be mildly impaired. He
diagnosed a history of psychiatric disorder, made a psychiatric
referral, and listed Cruz's prognosis as guarded.
The ALJ noted in his decision that Cruz denied receiving
psychiatric treatment in a 1994 evaluation. The ALJ did not
address the other 1994 evaluation. He had not asked Cruz
specifically about a psychiatric disorder at his hearing,
although he had enquired into what kind of treatment Cruz
received at Woodhull, and whether there was anything that the ALJ
should know. To the latter Cruz replied in the negative. To the
former Cruz replied that he received medicines and a "physical
checkup." Rec. at 33.
On his appeal to the district court, however, Cruz included
with his motion a referral, dated May 21, 1997, from his treating
psychiatrist, Dr. Holloway. That referral indicated that Cruz had
been receiving regular psychiatric treatment from Dr. Holloway
for the past eighteen months, that Cruz had severe depression,
blindness in his right eye, and that, in conclusion, he could not
work at all. The force of this new evidence resulted in a remand
to the ALJ, pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
(1994). Subsequently, Cruz was assessed by the ALJ as having been
disabled since August of 1994.
Presently, Cruz seeks an award of attorney's fees under the
Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA") 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d).
Once a petitioner has successfully challenged government agency
action in court, he or she is entitled to recover the costs of
litigation so long as the "the position of the United States" was
not "substantially justified" and "special circumstances [do not]
make an award unjust." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). The
"substantially justified" standard requires that the government's
position was "justified to a degree that could satisfy a
reasonable person." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565, 108
S.Ct. 2541, 2550, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988). Generally, if the basis
for remand is evidence which was not available prior to the
district court action, the award of attorney's fees is
the Commissioner's decision was reasonable with regard to the
evidence he had before him. Thus, a remand granted under sentence
six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), as occurred in this case, is generally
not grounds for an award of fees.
However, remand under sentence six of § 405(g) is not
equivalent to a finding that the ALJ's decision was supported by
substantial evidence, nor does it imply that, absent the new
evidence which served as the basis for remand, the government's
position was substantially justified. In this case, while the new
evidence provided by the plaintiff upon appeal was overwhelmingly
convincing of the need for remand, it was not the only possible
basis. The ALJ has a responsibility to develop the record at the
administrative level. See Tejada v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 770, 774
(2d Cir. 1999). When a plaintiff appears pro se, that
responsibility is even more pronounced. See Echevarria v.
Secretary of Health and Human Serv., 685 F.2d 751, 755 (2d Cir.
1982). If, in failing to fulfill that duty, the ALJ leaves
significant gaps in the record, a district court may remand for
further development of the record pursuant to sentence four of §
405(g). See id. at 756-57; 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
In the present case, while indications of psychiatric disorder
were hidden within a conflicting record, it was nevertheless the
ALJ's responsibility to assess that evidence and realize that
there was an important gap in the record as it stood — namely,
the possible history of psychiatric treatment. Although the
claimant denied any history of psychiatric treatment, that is
hardly surprising. Persons often deny receiving treatment from a
psychiatrist. But, as the record before the ALJ contained both
the location of the treatment, as well as the name of a
physician, i.e., Dr. Medkovich, it would have been eminently
possible to ascertain whether or not the indicated twelve year
history of psychiatric disorder was, in fact, a reality, and
whether or not it dictated a finding of disability. Having failed
to complete the record, as required under the statute and ...