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Copper v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division

September 1, 2016

DEBORAH G. COPPER, PLAINTIFF
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner Social Security Administration, DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HONORABLE MARK E. FORD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pending now before this Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”). ECF Nos. 16, 17. The matter is before the undersigned by consent of the parties. ECF No. 7. The Government has filed a response and the matter is now ripe for resolution.

         I. Background:

         On January 5, 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for attorney's fees and costs under 28 U.S.C. § 2412, the Equal Access to Justice Act (hereinafter “EAJA”), requesting $8, 302.80, representing a total of 34.85 attorney hours for work performed in 2014 and 2015 at an hourly rate of $187.00. ECF No. 16-1. On January 14, 2016, the Commissioner filed a response objecting to the hourly rate requested for 2014 and the number of hours Plaintiff's counsel is requesting. ECF No. 19. The Plaintiff filed a reply on February 24, 2016, contending the fee requested is reasonable and compensable under the EAJA. ECF No. 20.

         II. Applicable Law:

         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.

         The EAJA 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 v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).

         The EAJA is not designed to reimburse without limit. Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 573 (1988). 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 attorney's experience, ability, and reputation; the benefits resulting to the client from the services; the customary fee for similar services; the contingency or certainty of compensation; the results obtained; and, the amount involved. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 430 (1983). Further, 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.”).

         III. Discussion:

         In the present action, Plaintiff's case was remanded by this Court pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner does not contest Plaintiff's claim that she is the prevailing party and does not oppose her application for fees under the EAJA. (ECF No. 16) The Court construes this lack of opposition to this application as an admission that the government's decision to deny benefits was not “substantially justified” and that Plaintiff is the prevailing party and entitled to receive an award under the EAJA.

         A. Hourly Rate:

         As a general rule, 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 attorney's justifies a higher fee. 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A). The decision to increase the hourly rate is not automatic, though, and remains at the discretion of the district court. McNulty v. Sullivan, 886 F.2d 1074 (8th Cir. 1989). In Sanders v. Astrue, 2012 WL 19422 (W.D. Ark. Jan 3, 2012), this Court decided to follow the approach set forth in Knudsen v. Barnhart, 360 F.Supp.2d 963, 969-974 (N.D. Iowa 2004), wherein the Court found that “a reasonable balance between accuracy and ease of computation would be to require attorneys to adjust fees using the CPI available and applicable to the year when services were performed.” Id. at 974. In this case, we find that an increase in the cost of living justifies a higher fee. However, we find Plaintiff's request for compensation at the rate of $187.00 per hour for work performed in 2014 to be excessive. Accordingly, the Plaintiff is entitled to only $186.00 per hour for work performed during that time frame.

         B. Blocked Billing Entries:

         The Defendant objects to 2.00 attorney hours, contending they are not compensable the EAJA because they consist of batched or blocked time entries that comingle attorney tasks with non-compensable tasks. See Role Models Am., Inc. v. Brownlee, 353 F.3d 962, 971 (D.C Cir. 2004) (noting that where time entries “lump together multiple tasks, ” it is impossible for the court to evaluate their reasonableness). We agree that counsel has lumped no less than eight different tasks, some of which are non-compensable administrative tasks, into one time entry on October 10, 2015, and has requested 2.00 attorney hours for these tasks. It appears that counsel seeks compensation for additional review and research performed in conjunction with this ...


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