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Estrada v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, San Antonio Division

June 3, 2019

DIANA ESTRADA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION; Defendant.

          ORDER

          ELIZABETH S. ("BETSY") CHESTNEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Diana Estrada's (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Attorney's Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act [#25], filed May 6, 2019. On May 17, 2019, Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”), filed a Response in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act [#26]. The undersigned has authority to enter this Order based on the parties' Consent to Proceed Before a United States Magistrate Judge [#12, #13]. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act is GRANTED.

         I. Introduction

         On January 2, 2018, Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. [#1-2]. On February 5, 2019, this Court vacated the Commissioner's decision and remanded Plaintiff's claim for further proceedings [#24]. Plaintiff now moves for an award of attorney's fees in the amount of $7, 733 under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“the EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412 [#25], which the Commissioner opposes [#26]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will award Plaintiff $7, 733 in attorney's fees under the EAJA.

         II. Governing Law

         The EAJA “provides a mandatory attorney's fee award for a prevailing party that meets certain financial eligibility requirements.” Baker v. Bowen, 839 F.2d 1075, 1079-80 (5th Cir. 1988). Once the plaintiff establishes these facts, the government must pay attorney's fees, unless it is able to prove that its position was substantially justified or that, due to special circumstances, an award of attorney's fees to the plaintiff would be unjust. See Herron v. Bowen, 788 F.2d 1127, 1130 (5th Cir. 1986).

         The purpose of the EAJA's mandatory fee-shifting provision “is to ensure that there is sufficient representation for individuals who need it while minimizing the cost of attorneys' fees awards to the taxpayers.” Baker, 839 F.2d at 1082. An award of attorney's fees under the EAJA must be “reasonable.” § 2412(b). As the fee applicant, Plaintiff has the burden of demonstrating the reasonableness of the number of hours expended on the prevailing claim. See Von Clark v. Butler, 916 F.2d 255, 259 (5th Cir. 1990); Leroy v. City of Hous., 831 F.2d 576, 586 (5th Cir. 1987). A fee applicant is expected to exercise “billing judgment” with respect to hours worked and to present evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 437 (1983). Accordingly, “a district court may reduce the number of hours awarded if the documentation is vague or incomplete.” La. Power & Light Co. v. Kellstrom, 50 F.3d 319, 324 (5th Cir. 1995).

         In determining the reasonableness of attorney's fees under the EAJA, the Fifth Circuit has adopted the twelve-factor “lodestar” test enunciated in Johnson v. Ga. Highway Exp., Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717 (5th Cir. 1974). See Hall v. Shalala, 50 F.3d 367, 369 (5th Cir. 1995). The Fifth Circuit, however, has clarified that “it is not necessary for a district court to examine each of the factors independently if it is apparent that the court has arrived at a just compensation based upon appropriate standards.” Sanders v. Barnhart, No. 04-10600, 2005 WL 2285403, at *2 (5th Cir. Sept. 19, 2005). “The fee thus determined cannot exceed the statutory cap, except as expressly permitted by the EAJA.” Sandoval v. Apfel, 86 F.Supp.2d 601, 616 (N.D. Tex. 2000).

         The district court has broad discretion in setting the appropriate award of attorney's fees, and, on appeal, the court of appeals reviews the court's award of attorney's fees for abuse of discretion and the supporting factual findings for clear error. See Watkins v. Fordice, 7 F.3d 453, 457 (5th Cir. 1993) (citing Von Clark, 916 F.2d at 258).

         III. Analysis

         On February 5, 2019, this Court vacated the Commissioner's decision and remanded Plaintiff's claim for further proceedings pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Fifth Circuit has held that a party who obtains a remand pursuant to the fourth sentence of § 405(g) qualifies as a “prevailing party” for purposes of attorney's fees under the EAJA. Breaux v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 20 F.3d 1324, 1325 (5th Cir. 1994) (per curiam). It follows that Plaintiff is the “prevailing party” in this case for EAJA purposes, and is, therefore, entitled to an award of attorney's fees under the EAJA.

         In her fee application, Plaintiff asks the Court to award attorney's fees in the amount of $7, 733, representing 41.8 hours of work at a rate of $185 per hour. Plaintiff attaches an “itemization of time” confirming a total of 41.8 hours expended at the hourly rate of $185. (Doc. 25-2 at 1.) The Commissioner does not object to Plaintiff's proposed hourly rate of $185. Rather, the Commissioner claims that the number of hours spent by Plaintiff's counsel was excessive and that, therefore, a reduced fee is warranted in this case. The Commissioner specifically contends that Plaintiff should be compensated for only forty hours. The Court disagrees.

         The EAJA provides that attorney's fees “shall be based upon prevailing market rates for the kind and quality of the services furnished, ” but “shall not be awarded in excess of $125 per hour unless the court determines that an increase in the cost of living or a special factor, such as the limited availability of qualified attorneys for the proceedings involved, justifies a higher fee.” § 2412(d)(2)(A).

         Plaintiff requests a rate of $185 per hour for the services of Karl E. Osterhout, Esq., which exceeds the EAJA's presumptive statutory cap of $125 per hour. However, the EAJA permits cost-of-living adjustments to the attorney's hourly rate. See Shalala, 50 F.3d at 368-69. The Court finds that the requested hourly rate of $185, which includes a $60-per-hour increase from the statutory rate, is reasonable. This adjustment is consistent with the increase in the cost of living in the San Antonio-New Braunfels area, as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.[1] In addition, this Court has previously found this hourly rate to be reasonable. See, e.g., Zertuche v. Berryhill, No. ...


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