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Kunik v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division

May 12, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


LEONARD T. STRAND, Magistrate Judge.

This case is before me on plaintiff's April 25, 2014, application (Doc. No. 23) for attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). On January 27, 2014, this court reversed and remanded the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) (Doc. No. 20). Plaintiff now requests $3, 425.00 in attorney fees for her attorney's work on the case and alleges that the Commissioner's position was not substantially justified. In support of her application, plaintiff has attached (a) the affidavit of her attorney, David Eastman, (b) an itemization of the time Mr. Eastman spent on the case and (c) her own affidavit, which includes an assignment of her interests in the attorney fee award to Mr. Eastman. She requests that the award be made payable to him.

On May 9, 2014, the Commissioner filed her response (Doc. No. 24) to plaintiff's application. The Commissioner indicates she has no objection to entry of an order awarding attorney fees under EAJA in the amount of $3, 425.00, to be paid by the Social Security Administration. However, the Commissioner contends that the award must be paid to plaintiff, not to Mr. Eastman, as it will be subject to offset to satisfy any pre-existing debt plaintiff may owe to the United States.


A. Legal Standards

Attorney fees may be awarded to a "prevailing party" in a Social Security appeal under the EAJA. See 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). The statute provides as follows:

Except as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses, in addition to any costs awarded pursuant to subsection (a), incurred by that party in any civil action (other than cases sounding in tort), including proceedings for judicial review of agency action, brought by or against the United States in any court having jurisdiction of that action, unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.

28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A) (emphasis added). The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has had little occasion to elaborate on what constitutes "special circumstances." See Koss v. Sullivan, 982 F.2d 1226, 1229 (8th Cir. 1993) (finding no special circumstances that would make an award unjust and stating "the denial of fees to counsel whose efforts brought about the Secretary's change of position is unjust"). The Eighth Circuit has, however, specifically addressed the issue of when a position is substantially justified:

A position enjoys substantial justification if it has a clearly reasonable basis in law and fact. Accordingly, the Commissioner can advance a losing position in the district court and still avoid the imposition of a fee award as long as the Commissioner's position had a reasonable basis in law and fact. Further, a loss on the merits by the Commissioner does not give rise to a presumption that [he or] she lacked substantial justification for [his or] her position. The Commissioner does, however, at all times bear the burden to prove substantial justification.

Goad v. Barnhart, 398 F.3d 1021, 1025 (8th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted); see also Lauer v. Barnhart, 321 F.3d 762, 765 (8th Cir. 2003) (recognizing "the overriding, fundamental principal [sic] that the government's position must be well founded in fact to be substantially justified"); Sawyers v. Shalala, 990 F.2d 1033, 1034 (8th Cir. 1993) ("To be substantially justified, the [Commissioner] must show that [his] position was justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person.'") (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988)).

To obtain an award, the party must apply for the award "within thirty days of final judgment in the action" and "allege that the position of the United States was not substantially justified." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(B). "Final judgment" is defined as "a judgment which is final and not appealable." 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(G). "[T]he provision's 30-day deadline for fee applications and its application-content specifications are not properly typed jurisdictional, '" but instead are "ancillary to the judgment of a court." Scarborough v. Principi, 541 U.S. 401, 413-14 (2004). The government, therefore, can waive this requirement because it is present to protect the government's interests. See Vasquez v. Barnhart, 459 F.Supp.2d 835, 836 (N.D. Iowa 2006).

If attorney fees are appropriate, the reasonable hourly rate is established by statute:

[A]ttorney fees 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.

28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(2)(A)(ii); see also Johnson v. Sullivan, 919 F.2d 503, 505 (8th Cir. 1990) (holding that, "where... an EAJA petitioner presents uncontested proof of an increase in the cost of living sufficient to justify hourly attorney's fees of more than [the applicable statutory amount], enhanced fees should be awarded"). Further, "[f]ees and other expenses awarded under [subsection (d)] to a party shall be paid by any agency [(the Social Security Administration)] over which the party prevails from any funds made available to the agency by appropriation or otherwise." 28 U.S.C. § ...

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