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Leger v. Barnhart

July 21, 2008

MARJORIE ST. LEGER PLAINTIFF,
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Seybert, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Presently pending before this Court is Plaintiff's petition for attorneys' fees and expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d) ("EAJA"). The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") filed a memorandum in partial opposition to Plaintiff's motion on March 13, 2006, challenging attorneys' fees for time spent after the Commissioner had offered to remand the case. Plaintiff filed a reply on October 3, 2006. For the reasons discussed herein, Plaintiff's petition is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are relevant to the pending motion. For a more detailed account of the facts and the underlying determination, the parties are referred to this Court's December 7, 2005 Order ("2005 Order").

Plaintiff commenced this action on November 12, 2004 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging a final determination by the Commissioner denying her application for disability insurance benefits. On March 11, 2005, the Commissioner proposed to remand the action to the Social Security Administration for further administrative proceedings. (Docket Entry 7; Pl.'s Reply Ex. A.) Plaintiff refused the remand offer, as presented by the Commissioner, and instead began preparing a motion for judgment on the pleadings, which she filed on May 9, 2005. (Docket Entries 9-10.) The Commissioner sent a letter to Plaintiff, dated May 5, 2005, referencing a notice of motion for remand, which was filed with the Court on August 3, 2005. (Docket Entries 8, 12-13.) Although counsel for the Commissioner mailed the motion to remand to Plaintiff prior to Plaintiff's filing of her motion for judgment on the pleadings, it does not appear that Plaintiff received the Commissioner's notice of motion, or memorandum of law in support thereof, until after Plaintiff's counsel completed work on the motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Pl.'s Reply 2; Docket Entries 12-13 (indicating that the Commissioner's notice of motion and brief were not filed with the Court until August 3, 2005).)

In the motion to remand, the Commissioner conceded that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision contained errors. Namely, the Commissioner recognized that "the ALJ's decision does not adequately reflect the limitations resulting from plaintiff's mental impairment and to what extent these limitations impact her ability to perform work activity." (Def.'s Mot. to Remand 12.) Furthermore, the Commissioner noted that the ALJ erred "when, at the fifth step of the sequential analysis, he applied Medical Vocational Rules 202.20 through 202.02 (Tr. 18) which were inapplicable in a situation such as this involving both exertional and non-exertional limitations." (Def.'s Mot. to Remand 13.) As a result, the Commissioner requested that the case be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings.

Plaintiff sought to have this Court reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for the payment of benefits. Alternatively, if the Court decided not to remand for the payment of benefits, Plaintiff urged the Court to remand with certain specific instructions: (1) reassess Plaintiff's residual functional capacity; (2) comply with 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a in evaluating Plaintiff's mental impairments; (3) obtain testimony from a vocational expert regarding whether there is other work in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform; and (4) impose a time limit for the remand proceeding. (Pl.'s Mot. Judg. on Pleadings 2.)

As set forth in the 2005 Order, this Court reversed and remanded the case to the Commissioner to further develop the record and apply the correct legal standards consistent with the Order.

(2005 Order 14.) Specifically, the Court found two errors in the ALJ's findings: (1) the ALJ did not utilize the special technique required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a in evaluating the severity of Plaintiff's mental impairment; and (2) the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard at the fifth step of his analysis. (2005 Order 9.)

With respect to the first error, the ALJ failed to discuss the limitations of Plaintiff's mental impairment and did not document use of the special technique as required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(e). As a result, the Court could not conclusively determine that the severity of Plaintiff's mental impairment was properly analyzed. (2005 Order 10-11.) With respect to the fifth step in the ALJ's analysis, this Court held that because the ALJ found Plaintiff to be severely impaired due to both exertional and non-exertional imitations, the ALJ should not have directly applied Rules 202.20-202.22, which apply when the limitations are exclusively exertional. (2005 Order 12-13.) As the Court explained, the "re-evaluation at the fifth step of the analysis, however, can only occur after the ALJ properly develops the record and applies the correct technique as to the severity of Plaintiff's mental impairments." (2005 Order 13.) Consequently, the Court reversed and remanded the action to the Commissioner to further develop the record and apply the correct legal standards.

Plaintiff now seeks attorneys' fees totaling $5,703.00 for 35.9 hours billed at a rate of $155.35 for hours billed in 2004 and $159.60 for hours billed in 2005 and 2006. Additionally, Plaintiff seeks costs of $150.00 for the filing fee. The Commissioner does not challenge Plaintiff's right to collect attorney's fees and costs or the hourly billing rate; rather, the Commissioner urges this Court to significantly reduce the award of attorneys' fees based on excessive and unnecessary hours spent on opposing the Commissioner's motion to remand.

DISCUSSION

I. Legal Standard Under EAJA

Under Section 2412(d) of the EAJA, a prevailing party other than the United States in "any civil action (other than cases sounding in tort) . . . brought by or against the Unites States" is entitled to an award of attorneys' fees and expenses incurred "unless the court finds the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust." 28 U.S.C. ยง 2412(d)(1)(A). The EAJA further provides that a court has the discretion to reduce or deny an award if the "prevailing party during the course of the ...


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