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Loretta Vincent v. Commissioner of Social Security

July 8, 2011

LORETTA VINCENT, PLAINTIFF - APPELLANT,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT - APPELLEE.



Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Victor E. Bianchini, Magistrate Judge) reducing by two-thirds the attorney's fees awarded following a successful appeal from the administrative denial of an application for Social Security disability benefits.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: John M. Walker, Jr., Circuit Judge:

10-2437-cv

Vincent v. Comm'r of Social Security

Argued: May 3, 2011

Before : WALKER, CALABRESI, and WESLEY, Circuit Judges.

We hold that the failure of claimant's counsel to develop the administrative record as to issues collateral to the disability determination does not constitute a "special circumstance"

warranting a fee reduction under the Equal Access to Justice Act. We also hold that the district court abused its discretion in reducing the fee award based on its sua sponte critique of counsel's billing records and its assessment that the time billed was excessive.

REVERSED and REMANDED.

Plaintiff-Appellant Loretta Vincent appeals from an order of 27 the United States District Court for the Northern District of New 28 York (Victor E. Bianchini, Magistrate Judge) that reduced by two- 29 thirds the attorney's fee award she requested for successfully 30 appealing from the administrative denial of her application for 31 disability benefits. The district court, attributing gaps in the 32 administrative record to Vincent's counsel, concluded that this 33 alleged deficiency constituted "special circumstances" justifying 2 1 a reduction in the attorney's fees awarded under the Equal Access 2 to Justice Act. We hold that the failure of a claimant's 3 attorney to develop the administrative record on issues 4 collateral to the disability determination does not constitute a 5 "special circumstance" warranting a reduction in attorney's fees.

We also hold that the district court abused its discretion in 7 reducing the fee award based on its sua sponte critique of 8 counsel's billing records and its conclusion that the time billed 9 was excessive because no novel issues were raised.

BACKGROUND

Attorney Mark Schneider represented Vincent in her 12 successful appeal from the administrative denial of her claim for 13 disability benefits. His efforts at getting paid for those 14 services have been less successful. After ruling in Vincent's 15 favor on the merits, the district court chided Schneider for 16 apparent deficiencies in his representation and awarded only one- 17 third of the amount requested in Vincent's motion for attorney's 18 fees. Vincent now appeals from that order. 19 Vincent applied to the Social Security Administration for 20 disability insurance benefits on November 23, 2005. After an 21 initial denial, Vincent requested a hearing and appeared before 22 Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") J. Lawson Brown, who rejected 23 the application on December 20, 2007. On August 21, 2008, the 24 Social Security Appeals Council ("Appeals Council") denied 3 1 Vincent's request for review, making the ALJ's decision a final 2 order of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").

3 On September 9, 2008, Vincent filed a complaint in the district 4 court challenging the Commissioner's final order. Schneider 5 represented Vincent at every step of this process. 6 Vincent based her benefits application on a claim that a 7 work-related back injury had rendered her unable to work as of 8 August 2, 2004. To determine whether or not Vincent was disabled 9 as defined by the Social Security Act, the ALJ engaged in the 10 five-step sequential analysis prescribed by regulations. See 20 11 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In finding her not to be disabled, 12 the ALJ put significant weight on his negative assessment of 13 Vincent's credibility. While acknowledging that Vincent's 14 "medically determinable impairment could reasonably be expected 15 to produce the alleged symptoms," the ALJ found that her 16 "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting 17 effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible." Vincent's 18 disability report listed ten years of full-time factory 19 employment from 1994 to 2004, but her earnings records reflected 20 less than three years of work in that period. Vincent's 21 statements to the Social Security Administration therefore 22 suggested, according to the ALJ, "that she tends to exaggerate."

23 The ALJ's review of Vincent's medical records, including a 24 doctor's recommendation, unheeded by Vincent, that she attend 4 1 physical therapy or a "back school" program, further "call[ed] 2 into question [Vincent's] credibility." The ALJ also observed 3 that Vincent's assertion of having been enrolled in special 4 education through tenth grade was not "corroborated by the 5 records" of the school district, which was unable to locate any 6 special education records in Vincent's name. Having discounted 7 Vincent's own account of her impairment based on these 8 credibility ...


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