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Brown v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Colorado

August 27, 2014

LINDA MARIE BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

ORDER

R. BROOKE JACKSON, District Judge.

This case is before the Court on plaintiff Linda Marie Brown's Application for an Award of Attorney's Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412 [ECF No. 19]. For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

FACTS

Ms. Brown applied for social security disability benefits on December 21, 2010, claiming an inability to work since her alleged onset date of December 21, 2010 due to brain and nerve damage, fatigue, and blurry vision in her left eye. Her application for benefits was initially denied on March 2, 2011. Ms. Brown requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). After holding a hearing on June 11, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Ms. Brown social security benefits. The Appeals Council denied her request for review on July 29, 2013, and Ms. Brown filed a timely appeal to this Court on September 6, 2013.

Ms. Brown raised four issues on appeal: (1) the ALJ should have found that she was disabled because she met the criteria of Listing 12.02; (2) the ALJ failed to base his mental RFC assessment on substantial evidence in the record; (3) the ALJ failed to base his credibility assessment on substantial evidence in the record; and (4) the Commissioner erroneously failed to include new evidence reviewed by the Appeals Council when submitting the administrative record to this Court. In an Order issued May 20, 2014, this Court reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. [ECF No. 17]. Specifically, this Court held that there was substantial evidence in the record supporting the ALJ's determination that Ms. Brown did not meet the criteria of Listing 12.02 and that the Appeals Council did not err in failing to include new evidence in the record, but that the ALJ failed to properly take into account the treatment records and opinions of Ms. Brown's treating physician, Dr. Healey, in determining Mr. Brown's RFC.[1] The Court noted that the ALJ failed to discuss one significant opinion of Dr. Healey from October 2010, and that the ALJ's analysis of the January 2011 and April 2012 treatment records proved deficient. As such, the Court held that the case be remanded for further findings on Dr. Healey's treatment records and opinions, specifically adding that "[t]hese treatment records should be analyzed under the two-step inquiry" from Krauser v. Astrue, 638 F.3d 1324, 1330 (10th Cir. 2011), and that "any opinions given on the ultimate issue of disability must be carefully considered" pursuant to Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *2 (July 2, 1996). [ECF No. 17 at 22-26].

ANALYSIS

A. Award of Fees Under the EAJA.

The Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA") provides:

Except as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses... incurred by that party in any civil action... unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.

28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). Thus, to prevail under the EAJA, a party must show (1) that it was the prevailing party; (2) the position of the United States was not substantially justified; and (3) there are no special circumstances that make an award unjust.

In a social security case, a plaintiff is the prevailing party when the district court remands to the Commissioner of Social Security under the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[2] Hackett v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 1166, 1168 (10th Cir. 2007). In an order dated May 20, 2014 this Court reversed the decision of the Commissioner to deny Ms. Brown benefits and remanded to the ALJ for additional review. [ECF No. 17]. Thus, Ms. Brown was the prevailing party. The government has stipulated that there are no special circumstances that make an award unjust. See [ECF No. 19 at 4]. Therefore, this analysis focuses on the second prong: whether the government's position was substantially justified.

When contesting an EAJA fee application, the burden is on the government to show that its position was substantially justified. Hackett, 475 F.3d at 1170. In litigation following an administrative proceeding, the government's position is both the position it took in the underlying administrative proceeding and in subsequent litigation defending that position. Id. at 1174. EAJA "fees generally should be awarded where the government's underlying action was unreasonable even if the government advanced a reasonable litigation position." Id. (quoting United States v. Marolf, 277 F.3d 1156, 1159 (9th Cir. 2002). In this circuit, substantially justified means that the government's position had a reasonable basis in both law and fact. Veltman v. Astrue, 261 F.App'x 83, 85 (10th Cir. 2008). The government's position is not substantially justified if its position is considered unreasonable "as a whole." Hackett, 475 F.3d at 1175.

In the process of analyzing a social security disability application, the ALJ is responsible for evaluating the medical opinions on record. In doing so, "the ALJ must complete a sequential two-step inquiry, each step of which is analytically distinct." Krauser, 638 F.3d at 1330. At step one the ALJ must determine whether a treating physician's medical opinion is conclusive and should thus be given controlling weight. See id. If it is not given controlling weight, the opinion is still entitled to deference and must be weighed using the factors in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527 and 416.927. See Watkins v. Barnhart, 350 F.3d 1297, 1300 (10th Cir. 2003) (citing SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *4 (July 2, 1996)). Those factors are:

(1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion ...

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