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Champlin v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

May 17, 2016

JENNY R. CHAMPLIN PLAINTIFF
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration DEFENDANT

          ORDER

          HON. ERIN L. SETSER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Jenny R. Champlin, appealed the Commissioner's denial of benefits to this Court. On December 21, 2015, judgment was entered remanding Plaintiff's case to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 21). Plaintiff now moves for an award of $7, 787.29 in attorney’s fees and expenses under 28 U.S.C. § 2412, the Equal Access to Justice Act (hereinafter “EAJA”), requesting compensation for 39.40 attorney hours of work before the Court at an hourly rate of $186.00 for work performed in 2014, $187.00 per hour for work performed in 2015, $188.00 per hour for work performed in 2016, and $423.64 in expenses. (Docs. 22-23). Defendant filed a response to Plaintiff’s application, objecting to certain hours claimed. (Doc. 24).

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A), the Court must award attorney’s fees to a prevailing social security claimant unless the Commissioner’s position in denying benefits was substantially justified. The burden is on the Commissioner to show substantial justification for the government’s denial of benefits. Jackson v. Bowen, 807 F.2d 127, 128 (8th Cir. 1986). Under Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 302 (1993), a social security claimant who obtains a sentence-four judgment reversing the Commissioner’s denial of benefits and remanding the case for further proceedings is a prevailing party. After reviewing the file, the Court finds that Plaintiff is a prevailing party in this matter.

         In determining a reasonable attorney’s fee, the Court will in each case consider the following factors: time and labor required; the novelty and difficulty of questions involved; the skill required to handle the problems presented; the preclusion of employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case; the customary fee; whether the fee is fixed or contingent; time limitations imposed by the client or the circumstances; the amount involved and the results obtained; the attorney’s experience, reputation and ability; the “undesirability” of the case; the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; and awards in similar cases. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 430 (1983).

         However, the EAJA is not designed to reimburse without limit. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 573 (1988). The Court can determine the reasonableness and accuracy of a fee request, even in the absence of an objection by the Commissioner. Clements v. Astrue, 2009 WL 4508480 (W.D. Ark. Dec. 1, 2009); see also Decker v. Sullivan, 976 F.2d 456, 459 (8th Cir. 1992) (“Although the issue was not raised on appeal, fairness to the parties requires an accurately calculated attorney’s fee award.”).

         The EAJA further requires an attorney seeking fees to submit “an itemized statement...stating the actual time expended and the rate at which fees and other expenses were computed.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(B). Attorneys seeking fees under federal fee-shifting statutes such as the EAJA are required to present fee applications with “contemporaneous time records of hours worked and rates claimed, plus a detailed description of the subject matter of the work.” Id. Where documentation is inadequate, the Court may reduce the award accordingly. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433 (1983).

         Plaintiff’s attorney requests an award under the EAJA for 7.65 hours of attorney work performed in 2014, at an hourly rate of $186.00; 28.25 hours of attorney work performed in 2015, at an hourly rate of $187.00; and 3.50 hours of attorney work performed in 2016, at an hourly rate of $188.00. The party seeking attorney fees bears the burden of proving that the claimed fees are reasonable. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437. Attorney fees may not be awarded in excess of $125.00 per hour - the maximum statutory rate under § 2412(d)(2)(A) - unless the court finds that an increase in the cost of living or a special factor such as the limited availability of qualified attorneys justifies a higher fee. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A).

         Pursuant to General Order 39, [1] which references the Consumer Price Index (CPI) - South, the Court finds that an enhanced hourly rate based on a cost of living increase is appropriate, and counsel will be compensated at $186 per hour in 2014, $187 per hour in 2015, and $188.00 per hour in 2016.

         The Court next addresses the number of hours Plaintiff's counsel claims she spent working on this case.

         Administrative Time:

         Defendant makes a generalized argument that 4.20 hours of the following 5.20 hours submitted by Plaintiff’s counsel should be deducted as it was work performed at the administrative level:

8/6/2014 ORDER/OPINIONS. Receipt and review of 7/31/2014 Appeals Council denial; ALJ Starr decision; review of hearing notes and formulation of initial recommendations…1.0,
08/07/2014 CORRESPONDENCE. Correspondence to client explaining appeal rights and summary of LJM review…0.50,
08/30/2014 ROF. Full review of file in preparation of federal appeal, review of anticipated federal appeal points from the hearing notes and comparison to actual Unfavorable Decision regarding anticipated errors. Notes were that this was a “massively clear cut case” and could not understand why ALJ did not inform the claimant at hearing that won in light of avascular necrosis, bilateral, s/p THA combined with obesity. New notes in comparison: ALJ omitted severe nerve damage in bilateral lower extremities, CFS, depression, and spinal stenosis; all alleged in PHM but not in UFD. No discussion of specific listings by number. MSCE diagnosis MDD, moderate, basic cognitive tasks; RFC errors; review of VE Spragins numbers and DOT job titles. Contact with client to confirm permission to appeal but unable to reach; LJM drafted complaint in anticipation of authority to file. LJM discussion of case with paralegal…1.50,
09/05/2014 CLIENT CALL. Discussion with client regarding IFP requirements and potential qualification. I spoke w/CL re: IFP - CL husband works 36 hours at $8 an hr and CL has since gotten a full time job 40 hrs a wk @$13.00 an hr therefore would not qualify for IFP and can’t afford $400.00 for filing and doesn't want to appeal as thinks case has gone on to(sic) long…0.50,
09/17/2014 CLIENT CALL E-MAIL. Third and fourth client phone calls regarding federal appeal, fees, and IFP eligibility…0.30,
09/20/2014 CLIENT CALL E-MAIL. Numerous client phone calls and emails regarding work conditions, IFP qualifications, and forms completion. Confirmation that client is indeed eligible for IFP and set up live appointment time to meet with me on 09/22…0.50,
09/24/2014 CLIENT CALL. Multiple client calls in response to no show for IFP completion live with me on 22nd. ...

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