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Eubanks-Carswell v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

December 12, 2019

ARIELLE EUBANKS-CARSWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER

          AMANDA ARNOLD SANSONE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Arielle Eubanks-Carswell seeks an award of $5, 982.41 in attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). (Doc. 29). The Commissioner opposes this motion. (Doc. 31)

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Eubanks-Carswell protectively applied for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on November 13, 2013. (Doc. 22, pp. 1-2). She attributed her disability to bipolar, anxiety, sciatic nerve damage, vertigo, vision, and colon disease. (Id. at p. 3). Ms. Eubanks-Carswell requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), who determined she ha these severe impairments: status post (s/p) right shoulder arthroscopic repair, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (Id. at pp. 2, 4). Despite these impairments, the ALJ concluded Ms. Eubanks-Carswell had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, subject to the limitations in the decision, and Ms. Eubanks-Carswell could perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at p. 4). The ALJ held Ms. Eubanks-Carswell was not disabled. (Id. at p. 5). Ms. Eubanks-Carswell appealed to the Appeals Council which denied her request for review. (Id. at p. 2). Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Ms. Eubanks-Carswell timely appealed to this court. (Doc. 1).

         The parties briefed prepared a joint memorandum on the issues. (Doc. 21). After considering the merits of the parties' positions, the court ruled for Ms. Eubanks-Carswell. (Doc. 22, p. 10). The court found the ALJ failed to state how much weight he gave to Ms. Raquel Findley-Hawthorne, Ms. Eubanks-Carswell's licensed social worker. (Id. at p. 8). The court recognized the ALJ discussed Ms. Findley-Hawthorne's statement. (Id. at pp. 8-9). But the court noted even though the ALJ need not refer to every piece of evidence, the ALJ must consider all evidence and articulate the weight given to probative evidence. (Id. at p. 8). The court found the ALJ should have assigned weight to Ms. Findley-Hawthorne's opinion because it was probative evidence. (Id. at pp. 9-10).

         Ms. Eubanks-Carswell filed this motion under the EAJA seeking an award of $5, 982.41 in attorney's fees. (Doc. 29). The motion is supported by counsel's affidavit and an itemized schedule of hours and services rendered. (Docs. 24, pp. 4-6; 24-1).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The EAJA states “a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States” reasonable attorney's fees and costs “incurred by that party in any civil action . . . brought by or against the United States in any court having jurisdiction of that 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). The prerequisites to an award of fees under the EAJA are: (1) the claimant is a prevailing party in a non-tort suit involving the United States; (2) the Government's position was not substantially justified; (3) the claimant timely applied for attorney's fees; (4) the claimant had a net worth of less than $2 million when the complaint was filed; and (5) no special circumstances would make the award of fees unjust. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d).

         A court's order reversing the ALJ's decision constituted a final order for the EAJA. Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 296 (1993). “In sentence four cases, the filing period begins after the final judgment (‘affirming, modifying, or reversing') is entered by the court and the appeal period has run, so that the judgment is no longer appealable.” Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 102 (1991) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(G)).

         The word “substantially, ” as used in the EAJA means: “‘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). In Pierce, the Supreme Court explained “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 if a reasonable person could think it correct, that is, if it has a reasonable basis in law and fact.” Id. at 585 n. 2.

         The phrase “position of the United States” includes the Commissioner's position in the underlying administrative proceedings and his position in the court proceedings. Stratton v. Bowen, 827 F.2d 1447, 1449 n. 2 (11th Cir. 1987). “The government's success or failure on the merits at each level may be evidence of whether its position was substantially justified, but that success or failure alone is not determinative of the issue.” Hadden v. Bowen, 851 F.2d 1266, 1267 (10th Cir. 1988). If the court finds some, but not all of the Commissioner's positions were substantially justified then the Commissioner “may be required to pay EAJA fees to a prevailing party for the award on any claim that was not substantially justified.” United States v. Jones, 125 F.3d 1418, 1427 (11th Cir. 1997). However, when the plaintiff's claims are based on a single set of facts and the issues are intertwined, then the plaintiff may recover fees for counsel's work on the entire case. Id. (citing Haitian Refugee Ctr. v. Meese, 791 F.2d 1489, 1500 (11th Cir. 1986)).

         The burden is on the Commissioner to show by a preponderance of the evidence that his position was substantially justified. White v. United States, 740 F.2d 836, 839 (11th Cir. 1984). The standard is one of reasonableness; the government must show “its case had a reasonable basis both in law and fact.” See Matthews v. United States, 713 F.2d 677, 683 (11th Cir. 1983). Simply because the government lost its case does not raise a presumption that the government's position was not substantially justified. White, 740 F.2d at 839. Nor is the government required to establish its decision to litigate was based on a substantial probability of prevailing. Id.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner does not dispute Ms. Eubanks-Carswell is the prevailing party or the reasonableness of the requested fees. (Doc. 31). Ms. Eubanks-Carswell claims her net worth is less than two million dollars. (Doc. 29, ¶ 5). Other than the Commissioner's objection, no special circumstances would make an award of ...


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