United States District Court, D. Colorado
RONALD C. TAYLOR, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES PURSUANT TO THE EQUAL ACCESS TO JUSTICE ACT
CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Attorney's Contested Motion for an Award of Fees Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act. (Doc. # 23.) Because the Commissioner's position in this case was not substantially justified, the Court grants this motion to the extent Plaintiff is entitled to such fees, and denies this motion to the extent that Plaintiff's initial request of $8, 020.69 in attorney and paralegal fees (a) was premised on improper hourly rates and (b) cannot be paid to Plaintiff's counsel directly.
The facts and procedural history of this case are set out at length in the Administrative Record (Doc. # 9), as well as in the briefing on the merits that both parties submitted (Doc. ## 12, 16, 19), and this Court's written order (Doc. # 21). In that order, this Court reversed the July 27, 2012 decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") and remanded the matter to Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, for further proceedings. (Doc. # 21.) Pursuant to the Court's Order, the Clerk of the Court entered Judgment in Plaintiff's favor. (Doc. # 22.) Thereafter, Plaintiff's attorney filed the instant motion (Doc. # 23), which is ripe for the Court's review (Doc. ## 24, 25). Plaintiff initially requested $8, 020.69 in attorney and paralegal fees, but changed this amount to $6, 276.39 in his Reply upon finding a mathematical error. (Doc. # 25.)
A. WHETHER DEFENDANT'S POSITION WAS SUBSTANTIALLY JUSTIFIED
Under the EAJA, a party that prevails against the United States in court, including a successful Social Security benefits claimant, may be awarded fees if the position of the United States was not "substantially justified" and there are no special circumstances that make an award of fees unjust. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A); Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 796 (2002). As ample case law indicates, where, as here, a Social Security disability claimant obtains a remand to the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), he is a prevailing party for purposes of the EAJA. See Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 302 (1993). Further, the Commissioner does not assert any special circumstances that would make an award of fees unjust.
The Commissioner bears the burden of demonstrating that her position was substantially justified-a test that, in this Circuit, "means h[er] position was reasonable in law and in fact and thus can be justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person." Harrold v. Astrue, 372 F.Appx. 903, 904 (10th Cir. 2010) (unpublished) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "Both the Commissioner's prelitigation and litigation positions must have had reasonable bases in fact and law to be considered substantially justified." Id. Further, EAJA fees "generally should be awarded where the government's underlying action was unreasonable even if the government advanced a reasonable litigation position." Hackett v. Barnhart, 475 F.3d 1166, 1174 (10th Cir. 2007).
In the instant case, Plaintiff argued that the ALJ failed to consider his treating source medical opinions. The Court agreed, and remanded on that basis alone, because the failure to consider these opinions "casts doubt on the validity of the entirety of the ALJ's RFC." (Doc. # 21.) The Court specifically held that the ALJ did not fully adhere to the mandate that he must give "specific, legitimate reasons for his decision" when he failed to consider the opinions of Drs. Kratchko and Binswanger. (Id. (citing Drapeau v. Massanari, 255 F.3d 1211, 1213 (10th Cir. 2001))) This fundamental legal error was unreasonable and, thus, Defendant's position was not substantially justified.
Defendant's arguments to the contrary are unavailing. First, Defendant absurdly asserts that because Plaintiff argued that Denver Health is his treating source, she was justified in failing to consider the opinions of Drs. Kratchko and Binswanger, physicians who work at Denver Health. The Court is not convinced that Defendant can neglect a legal principle identified by the Tenth Circuit based on Plaintiff's characterization of his treating sources. Indeed, the Court stated that it "cannot avoid remand, given the utter lack of analysis as to the merits of these treating sources' evaluations."
Additionally, the Court rejects Defendant's argument that because Plaintiff's treating physicians' opinions were completed Med-9 forms, she was substantially justified in failing to consider them. Defendant cites Chapo v. Astrue, 682 F.3d 1285, 1289, 1292-93 (10th Cir. 2012) to support this assertion. However, in Chapo, the ALJ "accorded little weight to" a treating physician's Med-9 form. In the instant case, Defendant failed to even consider Plaintiff's treating physicians' opinions. The law related to evaluating a treating source's opinion is well established; failure to fully follow it, as occurred in this case, simply does not represent a close question for the Court.
B. REASONABLENESS OF THE FEE REQUEST
Having determined that Plaintiff is entitled to fees under the EAJA, the Court next considers the reasonableness of his request. As previously indicated, Plaintiff seeks $6, 276.39 in fees. (Doc. # 25 at 4.) This amount is calculated for 26.9 hours of attorney time at the rate of $191.94 per hour and 12.1 hours of paralegal time at $92 per hour. ( See id. )
Defendant does not dispute the amount of attorney or paralegal time for which Plaintiff seeks compensation. (Doc. # 24 at 6.) Instead, Defendant argues that Plaintiff has not demonstrated that the requested rates are reasonable. In his Reply, Plaintiff admits that he committed a mathematical error in his computation of attorney fees. Thus, Plaintiff reduced his originally requested hourly rate of ...