United States District Court, D. Colorado
BARBARA E. COAST, Plaintiff,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
R. BROOKE JACKSON, District Judge.
This case is before the Court on plaintiff Barbara Coast'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 application is granted.
Ms. Coast applied for disability benefits on September 14, 2009. Her application was denied by the Social Security Administration on April 30, 2010. She then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), and the ALJ held a hearing on February 17, 2011. On April 22, 2011, ALJ Burgchardt issued an opinion denying benefits. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Coast's request for review on September 5, 2012. Thereafter Ms. Coast filed a timely appeal with this Court. In its January 21, 2014 Order [ECF No. 17], this Court reversed the decision of the ALJ, finding that (1) the ALJ improperly weighed the opinions of two treating physicians and (2) at step four of the Social Security Administration's five part process, the ALJ neglected to consider the full range of Ms. Coast's limitations in arriving at a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment. Ms. Coast now asks for an award of attorney's fees and expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The government objects to such an award, arguing that its position was substantially justified.
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 that (1) 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). Hackett v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 1166, 1168 (10th Cir. 2007). In its earlier Order [ECF No. 17], this Court reversed the decision of the Commissioner to deny Ms. Coast benefits and remanded the case to the Commissioner for additional review. Thus, Ms. Coast was the prevailing party. The government has not argued that there are any special circumstances that make an award unjust. Therefore, this analysis focuses on the second prong: whether the government's position was substantially justified.
1. The Government's Position.
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. Hackett, 475 F.3d 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 the present case, the Court finds that the government's underlying position was not substantially justified and therefore does not reach the question of whether its litigation position was also unreasonable.
2. 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 the Tenth Circuit, "[t]he test for substantial justification... is one of reasonableness in law and fact. Thus, the government's position must be justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person. The government's position can be justified even though it is not correct." Hackett, 475 F.3d at 1172 (internal citations and ...