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Stacy G. D. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

September 30, 2019

STACY G. D., Plaintiff,

         Consent Case[1]



         Before the Court for determination is Plaintiff’s Motion for Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412, filed June 18, 2019. (doc. 24.) Based on the relevant findings, evidence, and applicable law, the application is GRANTED, and the plaintiff is awarded $8, 492.03 in attorney’s fees, expenses, and costs.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 26, 2018, Stacy G. D. (Plaintiff) filed a complaint seeking judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner)[2] that denied her claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (doc. 1.)[3] On March 23, 2017, the Commissioner’s decision was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings. (docs. 20; 21.) Plaintiff subsequently moved for an award of attorney’s fees, expenses, and costs under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412. (doc. 24.) The Commissioner does not object to the hourly rate but objects to the number of hours claimed. (doc. 26.)

         II. ANALYSIS

         Under the EAJA, a court must award attorney’s fees and expenses if (1) the claimant is the “prevailing party”;[4] (2) the Government’s position was not “substantially justified”; and (3) there are no special circumstances that make an award unjust. Murkeldove v. Astrue, 635 F.3d 784, 790 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A)). The attorney’s fees awarded under the EAJA must be reasonable, however. See 28 U.S.C. § 2412(b). “Because EAJA is a partial waiver of sovereign immunity, it must be strictly construed in the government’s favor.” Tex. Food Indus. Ass’n v. USDA, 81 F.3d 578, 580 (5th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). “In determining the reasonableness of such fees, [the Fifth Circuit] has adopted the 12–factor ‘lodestar’ test enunciated in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Exp., Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717 (5th Cir. 1974).”[5] It is, however, “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) (per curiam). The claimant has the burden of demonstrating that the hours claimed were reasonably expended on the prevailing claim. Von Clark v. Butler, 916 F.2d 255, 259 (5th Cir. 1990) (noting that the burden “does not shift to the opposing party merely because that party does not show that the hours are unreasonable or that it did not make specific objections to the hours claimed”).

         Here, as the prevailing party, Plaintiff has requested a total of $8, 492.03 in attorney’s fees and expenses for 31.61 hours of attorney work and 12.28 hours of paralegal work for litigating this appeal in federal court, 3.62 hours of attorney work for preparing and filing the EAJA application, $21.35 in postage expenses for service of process and case-related correspondence, and $419.90 in costs for copies and the initial filing fee. (docs. 24-1 at 5-7; 24-2.) Counsel has submitted an itemized billing statement detailing the time that was devoted to the case.[6] (doc. 24-2.) The Commissioner does not dispute Plaintiff’s entitlement to attorney’s fees, expenses, and costs or the hourly rates requested, [7] but objects to the number of hours. (doc. 26 at 1-2.)

         A. Attorney Hours

         The Commissioner claims that 31.61 hours for litigating Plaintiff’s case in federal court is unreasonable and requests a reduction to 25.61 hours. (doc. 26 at 4).

         1. Work Performed on Plaintiff’s Brief

         The Commissioner initially objects that the total number of hours worked on the initial brief, specifically the time entries from May 22, June 6, June 7, and June 11, 2016, is unreasonable because the case did not include any novel legal arguments or uncommon factual issues, raised only a single point of error, and “a great deal of its length result[ed] from Plaintiff’s counsel summarizing various medical records, rather than a detailed analysis and synthesis of the law and facts.” (doc. 26 at 3.) He claims that 17.44 attorney hours in connection with the initial brief is unreasonable and requests a reduction to 11.44 attorney hours. (Id. at 2.)

         The billing records show that of the disputed 17.44 hours, counsel spent 6.55 hours on May 22, 2016, reviewing and annotating the transcript, summarizing the procedural and medical history and case law for the brief, and researching the disability ratings issue–including the new social security regulations on those ratings and recent precedent regarding the new standards. Counsel also spent 3.82 hours on June 6, 2018, revising the case statement and comparing case facts to similar Fifth Circuit cases, and 5 hours on June 7, 2018, drafting and revising the arguments section, making multiple revisions for clarity, punctuation, spelling, grammar, and citation, and drafting the table of authorities and issue-presented section. Finally, he spent 2.07 hours on June 11, 2016, reviewing the brief, making final revisions, and filing the brief. (doc. 24-2 at 2.)

         “[I]t is well established that the most critical factor in determining an award of attorney’s fees is the degree of success obtained by the victorious plaintiff [ ].” Northwinds Abatement, Inc. v. Empl’rs. Ins. of Wausau, 258 F.3d 345, 354 (5th Cir. 2001) (internal quotations omitted); see also Hensley, 461 U.S. at 440 (“[T]he extent of a plaintiff’s success is a crucial factor in determining the proper amount of an award of attorney’s fees under” the EAJA.). Plaintiff’s successful brief was 15 pages long and presented a comprehensive explanation of her physical ailments and symptoms, and made a thorough presentation of her legal arguments on appeal. (See doc. 17.) The disputed hours consist of 6.55 hours reviewing a record of more than 1, 500 pages and summarizing the relevant aspects of Plaintiff’s medical history for the brief. See Harris v. Colvin, No. 3:11-CV-1089-M-BH, 2013 WL 2896880, at *3 (N.D. Tex. June 13, 2013) (finding 6.33 hours counsel spent “identifying important procedural information and medical facts, and condensing them into a chronological, 9–page summary” was reasonable and did not warrant reduction); Leroux v. Astrue, No. 3-10-CV-2634-M, 2012 WL 6757772, at *1 (N.D. Tex. Oct. 26, 2012) (finding that 15.08 hours were reasonable for counsel, who had represented the claimant at the administrative level, to review the record, “locate substantive evidence for arguments and citations to that evidence, ” and summarize that evidence), adopted by 2013 WL 28577 (N.D. Tex. Jan. 2, 2013); see also Campbell v. Berryhill, No. 3:15-CV-3913-N-BH, 2017 WL 4404459, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 1, 2017) (finding that 43 hours working on the initial brief was reasonable when there was an administrative record of 1, 662 pages), adopted by 2017 WL 4351370 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 29, 2017). ...

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