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Green v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah

October 3, 2014

SHERRY GREEN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

LANNY KING, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court upon Plaintiff's motion for attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. The motion is at Docket Number (DN) 23, the Commissioner's response in opposition is at DN 24, and Plaintiff's reply is at DN 25. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the under signed Magistrate Judge to determine this case, with any appeal lying before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Because the Commissioner's position was "substantially justified" as contemplated by 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), notwithstanding the fact that Plaintiff eventually prevailed and obtained a judicial remand for further administrative proceedings, Plaintiff's motion is DENIED.

Standards governing EAJA fee awards

To recover attorney fees under the EAJA, a plaintiff must satisfy three conditions: (1) she must be the "prevailing party"; (2) the United States' opposing position must have been without substantial justification; and (3) there must be no special circumstances that warrant denying relief. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A); DeLong v. Commissioner, 748 F.3d 723, 725 (6th Cir. 2014).

Plaintiff was the prevailing party because she obtained a judicial remand for further administrative proceedings (DN 21). Secretary v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 301 (1993). The Commissioner does not contend that any special circumstances support denying EAJA relief. Accordingly, the sole issue before the Court is whether the "position of the United States was substantially justified" as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner's position may be substantially justified even if the district court rejects it. DeLong, supra, at 725-26. Remand alone is not a proper basis for allowance of an EAJA fee because a finding that denial of benefits was unsupported by substantial evidence is not tantamount to a determination that the Commissioner's position lacked substantial justification. Id.

The Commissioner bears the burden of proving that its position was substantially justified. Id.

In Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 564 (1988), the Supreme Court recognized that the phrase "substantially justified" is ambiguous and that the word "substantial" has "two quite different - indeed, almost contrary - connotations." It can mean "considerable in amount" or "to a high degree, " as in "He won the election by a substantial majority." It can also mean "in the main, " for example, "What he said was substantially true." It is the latter definition that applies in the EAJA context:

We are of the view, therefore, that as between the two commonly used connotations of the word "substantially, " the one most naturally conveyed by the phrase before us here is not "justified to a high degree, " but rather "justified in substance or in the main" - that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person. That is no different from the "reasonable basis both in law and fact" formulation adopted by... the vast majority of other Courts of Appeals that have addressed this issue. See [inter alia] Trident Marine Construction, Inc. v. District Engineer, 766 F.2d 974, 980 (CA6 1985).... To be "substantially justified" means, of course, more than merely undeserving of sanctions for frivolousness; that is assuredly not the standard for Government litigation of which a reasonable person would approve.

Id. at 565-66.

EAJA fee awards in Social Security cases

In the context of judicial review of final denial decisions by the Commissioner, a plaintiff is entitled to an EAJA award if she: 1) obtains either a judicial award of disability benefits or a remand for further administrative proceedings; and 2) in some sense, the Commissioner erred in opposing the plaintiff's position and defending against the complaint. Procedurally, the Commissioner declines to oppose the plaintiff's position if - after reviewing the plaintiff's complaint and fact and law ...


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