United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
JAMIE A. SMITH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S APPLICATION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES
ROBERT H. CLELAND, District Judge.
Before the court is Plaintiff Jamie A. Smith's Application for Attorneys' Fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. (Dkt. # 24.) Plaintiff seeks attorneys' fees in the amount of $7, 745.15 under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412, on the ground that the Commissioner's position was not "substantially justified" in this action concerning Plaintiff's Social Security disability benefits. For the reasons stated below, the application will be denied.
Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on May 2, 2011 alleging that she became disabled on March 20, 2010. The application was initially denied, and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing. On August 13, 2012, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Patricia S. McKay held a hearing and, in a September 27, 2012 decision, denied Plaintiff's claim. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, and Plaintiff filed an action before the court on December 20, 2013 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Dkt. # 21, Pg. ID 909-10.)
Magistrate Judge Charles E. Binder issued a Report and Recommendation on January 6, 2015 which recommended finding that the ALJ committed reversible error and that the court remand the matter for further proceedings. ( Id. at 919.) The court adopted the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation and remanded the case for further proceedings. (Dkt. # 22, Pg. ID 922.)
Plaintiff filed the instant application on February 26, 2015, and the Commissioner responded on March 26, 2015. A reply followed on March 30, 2016.
Pursuant to the EAJA, "a court shall award to a prevailing party' in a civil action against the United States fees and other expenses... unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust." Glenn v. Comm'r of Soc. Serv., 763 F.3d 494, 498 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A)). To be "substantially justified" within the meaning of the EAJA, the government's position must be "justified in substance or in the main'-that is, justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). "This standard means, of course, more than merely undeserving of sanctions for frivolousness;' and is not different from having a reasonable basis both in law and fact.'" Glenn, 763 F.3d at 498 (quoting Underwood, 487 U.S. at 565). It is the government's burden to prove that "a given position was substantially justified, and it discharges that burden by demonstrating that the position had a reasonable basis both in law and fact." DeLong v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 748 F.3d 723, 725-26 (6th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
The Commissioner's regulations set forth a five-step sequential analysis for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). If the ALJ has concluded that the claimant is not engaged in substantial activity and has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairments (or combination of impairments), then, at Step Three, the ALJ determines whether the impairment(s) meet or equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If impairments(s) meet or equal one of the listed impairments, the ALJ will find the claimant disabled. If not, the ALJ will proceed with the sequential analysis. At Step Three, "an ALJ must analyze the claimant's impairments in relation to the Listed Impairments and must give a reasoned explanation of his findings and conclusions in order to facilitate meaningful review." Christephore v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 11-13547, 2012 WL 2274328, at *6 (E.D. Mich. 2012) (citing Reynolds v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 424 F.Appx. 411, 416 (6th Cir. 2011)). The Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation found that "the ALJ committed reversible error in failing to conduct an adequate Step Three evaluation." (Dkt. # 21, Pg. ID 919.) The Magistrate Judge explained:
[T]he ALJ summarily determined that Plaintiff did not meet or equal a listing, citing without discussion Listings 1.00 et seq. (Musculoskeletal system), 3.03 (Asthma) and 11.00 et seq. (Neurological system). The ALJ did not identify the subsidiary listing of impairments, or the requirements therein. Furthermore, she did not compare or analyze Plaintiff's symptoms with those requirements. Thus..., I find that it is not possible to know whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination of no disability under her Step Three evaluation.
(Dkt. # 21, Pg. ID 918.)
In the instant application, Plaintiff argues that she is entitled to EAJA attorneys' fees because she is the prevailing party in the instant action, and the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified. (Dkt. # 24, Pg. ID 925.) Plaintiff insists that the "Commissioner's lack of substantial justification in the pre-litigation action of the Agency is shown by the fact that the ALJ erred by failing to evaluate Plaintiff's impairments under any of the relevant Listings and reaching a Step Three determination that is not supported by substantial evidence." ( Id. ) Plaintiff identifies both the Commissioner's position before the ALJ and before the court as positions of the United States which justify EAJA fees. (Dkt. # 24, Pg. ID 925-26.) The Commissioner argues the request for fees should be denied because its position was substantially justified. (Dkt. # 26, Pg. ID 26.)
Plaintiff is not entitled to EAJA attorneys' fees merely because her action resulted in a remand. DeLong, 748 F.3d at 726. "[T]he Government could take a position that is not substantially justified, yet win; even more likely, it could take a position that is substantially justified, yet lose." Underwood, 487 at 569. "[A] position can be justified even though it is not correct, and we believe it can be substantially (i.e., for the most part) justified ...