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McIlrath v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Kansas

May 23, 2017

LAWRENCE CLARK MCILRATH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          John W. Lungstrum United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiff's “Application for Attorney Fees Under The Equal Access to Justice Act” (EAJA) (28 U.S.C. § 2412) (Doc. 23) (hereinafter EAJA Mot.). The Commissioner does not object to the hourly rate of $191.21 requested by Plaintiff, or to awarding costs of $400.00, and she admits that a fee award is proper but argues that the amount requested is unreasonable because “the attorney hours billed are excessive, particularly in light of counsel's representation of Plaintiff during the administrative proceedings.” (Doc. 24, p.3) (hereinafter EAJA Resp.). The court finds Plaintiff has not met his burden to establish that the amount of time billed was reasonable. Therefore, the court PARTIALLY GRANTS Plaintiff's motion for attorney fees, allowing 32.65 hours at the rate of $191.21, resulting in a fee award of $6, 243.00 as explained hereinafter.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff sought review of the Commissioner's decision denying disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered and filed the transcript of record. (Docs. 3, 4). After briefing was complete, this court determined the ALJ “did not adequately explain his findings regarding deficits in Plaintiff's concentration, persistence, or pace resulting from his pain, and Plaintiff's ability nonetheless to perform highly skilled work, ” and ordered that judgment be entered remanding the case for further proceedings. (Doc. 21, p.1) (hereinafter Ct's Opinion). Plaintiff now seeks payment of attorney fees pursuant to the EAJA, [2] 28 U.S.C. § 2412.

         Plaintiff's counsel, Mr. David H. M. Gray, has established that: (1) he has represented Plaintiff pursuant to a contingency fee agreement since October 11, 2013, (2) his customary hourly rate is $300.00, and (3) he expended fifty-one and four tenths hours in representing Plaintiff including: (a) twenty-nine and five tenths hours preparing and filing a Complaint, and reading, researching, and writing Plaintiff's Brief in the case, (b) fifteen and seventy-five hundredths hours reading, researching, and writing a Reply Brief, (c) one and sixty-five hundredths of an hour reading the court's Order and preparing an EAJA fee brief, and (d) four and fifty hundredths hours researching and preparing an EAJA reply brief. Plaintiff's counsel also asserts that the fee cap under the EAJA, adjusted for cost of living increases, is $191.21 per hour, and he seeks fees in the amount of $9, 828.14.

         II. Legal Standard

         The court has a duty to evaluate the reasonableness of every fee request. Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433-34 (1983). The EAJA requires that a court award a fee to a prevailing plaintiff unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified. Gilbert v. Shalala, 45 F.3d 1391, 1394 (10th Cir. 1995) (citing Estate of Smith v. O'Halloran, 930 F.2d 1496, 1501 (10th Cir. 1991)). The test for substantial justification is one of reasonableness in law and fact. Id. The Commissioner bears the burden to show substantial justification for her position. Id.; Estate of Smith, 930 F.2d at 1501. Here, the Commissioner does not argue that the government's position was substantially justified. The maximum fee of $125 per hour provided in § 2412(d)(2)(A), if awarded, may be adjusted for increases in the cost of living. Harris v. R.R. Ret. Bd. 990 F.2d 519, 521 (10th Cir. 1993); 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A)(ii).

         The party seeking attorney fees bears the burden of proving that his request is reasonable and must “submit evidence supporting the hours worked.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433, 434. The objecting party has the burden to challenge, through affidavit or brief, with sufficient specificity to provide notice to the fee applicant the portion of the fee petition which must be defended. Bell v. United Princeton Prop., Inc., 884 F.2d 713, 715 (3d Cir. 1989).

         III. Discussion

         A. Arguments

         The Commissioner agrees that award of a fee under the EAJA is appropriate in this case but disagrees with the amount of the fee requested. She argues that “[m]ultiple courts have found that 20 to 40 hours is a reasonable expenditure of attorney time for routine Social Security cases.” (EAJA Resp. 4) (citing cases). She argues that Plaintiff opted for a “Cadillac” litigation strategy, but that the court should not make the government pay for such an unreasonable choice. Id. at 3 (citing Praseuth v. Rubbermaid, Inc., 406 F.3d 1245, 1247 (10th Cir. 2005)). Particularly, she objects to being billed 27.5 hours to prepare a 27-page opening brief addressing “every possible issue, ” and 11.75 hours to draft a 16-page reply brief.[3] Id.

         She argues that the time expended is “excessive in light of [counsel's] familiarity with this case, ” id. at 4, and the eight-page brief he presented to the agency in July, 2015 “containing many of the same legal arguments he made before this court.” Id. at 5. She argues that Plaintiff's counsel explained his experience and expertise in dealing with Social Security disability cases, and she asserts that an attorney so well qualified as he should not take so many hours to present a case such as this. (EAJA Resp. 5).

         The Commissioner argues that this case involved an average-length record and standard arguments, and there is nothing to justify awarding a fee above the high-end of the spectrum of typical awards. Id. at 6 (citing Williams v. Astrue, No. 06-4027-SAC, 2007 WL 2582177 at *1 (D. Kan. Aug. 28, 2007) (“[C]ourts in this district have not hesitated to disallow hours over 40 as unreasonable in recent routine EAJA social security cases;” collecting cases). The Commissioner points to a case in which this court recently awarded 35-hours of fees to the same counsel, and argues that case is similar and can be used as a gauge here. Id. (citing Lavoie v. Colvin, Civ. A. No. 14-1352-JWL, 2016 WL 4181323 (D. Kan. Aug. 8, 2016)). She notes the court found that in normal circumstances 30 hours would be reasonable in a case such as Lavoie, but that five hours additional was justified because counsel had not represented Ms. Lavoie before the Commissioner and took the case shortly before the limitation period expired in that case. 2016 WL 4181323 at *3. She argues that this case is similar to Lavoie except that counsel represented the plaintiff in this case before the Commissioner and this record is less than 600 pages whereas the record in Lavoie was over 1, 100 pages. (EAJA Resp. 6).

         Plaintiff's counsel argues the cases relied upon by the Commissioner are much larger cases with aggressive strategy and excessive billing and do not relate to the subject matter of this case. (Doc. 28 p. 5) (hereinafter EAJA Reply). He argues that claims regarding a Cadillac litigation strategy, aggressive strategy, and briefing every possible issue are not “specific objections” within the meaning of the governing law regarding objections to hours expended for which fees are claimed pursuant to the EAJA, and are insufficient to advise the fee applicant of what is at issue. (EAJA Reply 5-6) (quoting Walton v. Massanari, 177 F.Supp.2d 359, 361-62 (E.D. Pa. 2001)). He argues that although the court did not find merit in every issue raised by Plaintiff, he may be compensated for all good-faith arguments raised. Id. at 6-7. Plaintiff points to the court's statement that certain facts removed this case from the mine run of Social Security cases and argues that this case is not a routine case. He argues this is also true because the record at “571 pages is approaching twice the typical record, ” and it did not involve standard arguments because of the legal principles which removed it from the mine run of cases. Id. at 10. He argues that “[b]ecause the ALJ erred in so many respects, the plaintiff was forced to submit a brief that covered each of those areas in order to make an appropriate presentation and argument to this court.” Id. at 11 (quoting Coleman v. Astrue, No. ...


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