United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division
TERESA C. GERLEMAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
R. READE, JUDGE.
INTRODUCTION AND RELEVANT PROCEDURAL HISTORY
matter before the court is Plaintiff Teresa C. Gerleman's
“Application for Attorneys Fees Under the Equal Access
to Justice Act” (“Motion”) (docket no. 21),
which she filed on December 26, 2017. In the Motion, Gerleman
seeks an award of attorney fees pursuant to the Equal Access
to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412,
in the amount of $7, 627.55. See Motion at 1-2. On
January 8, 2018, Defendant Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) filed a Response (docket no.
22), stating that she did not object to Gerleman's
request for attorney fees pursuant to the EAJA, but advised
that any award must be “payable to [Gerleman] as the
litigant, because it is subject to offset to satisfy any
pre-existing debts that the litigant may owe to the United
States.” Response at 1. The matter is fully submitted
and ready for decision.
EAJA permits a “prevailing party” to apply for
attorney fees and other expenses in any civil action brought
by or against the United States, including applications for
judicial review of agency actions. See 28 U.S.C.
§ 2412(d)(1)(A). A prevailing party is entitled to such
fees and expenses “unless the court finds that the
position of the United States was substantially justified or
that special circumstances make an award unjust.”
seeking fees and expenses must clear several preliminary
hurdles before an award is proper. An application for
attorney fees must be made within thirty days of final
judgment in the underlying action and must “show that
the party is a prevailing party and is eligible to receive an
award under” the EAJA. Id. §
2412(d)(1)(B). A party applying for fees must provide the
court with an itemized statement from his or her attorney
stating “the actual time expended and the rate at which
fees and other expenses were computed.” Id.
The party must also allege that the United States's
position was not substantially justified. Id. If the
party is an individual, as here, such individual's net
worth must not exceed $2, 000, 000 at the time the action was
filed. Id. § 2412(d)(2)(B). Furthermore,
Congress has placed a cap on the rate at which fees may be
awarded-“attorney 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 . . . justifies a
higher fee.” Id. § 2412(d)(2)(A).
regard to whether the United States's position was
substantially justified, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals
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 she
lacked substantial justification for 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 Sawyers v.
Shalala, 990 F.2d 1033, 1034 (8th Cir. 1993) (“To
be substantially justified, the [Commissioner] must show that
her position was ‘justified to a degree that could
satisfy a reasonable person.'” (quoting Pierce
v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988))). Relatedly,
“[t]he special circumstances exception is intended to
protect the [United States] when it attempts to enforce the
law by asserting ‘novel but credible extensions and
interpretations of the law.'” United States v.
Q Int'l Courier, Inc., 221 F.3d 1345, at *1 (8th
Cir. 2000) (unpublished table opinion) (quoting U.S.
Dep't of Labor v. Rapid Robert's Inc.,
130 F.3d 345, 347 (8th Cir. 1997)); see also Jackson v.
Bowen, 807 F.2d 127, 128 n.3 (8th Cir. 1986).
Astrue v. Ratliff, the Supreme Court held that any
fees awarded pursuant to the EAJA should be awarded directly
to the litigant, rather than the litigant's attorney.
See 560 U.S. 586, 593 (2010). Therefore, if the
recipient of an award under the EAJA “owes certain
delinquent federal debts, ” the government is entitled
to offset the fees award by the debts owed by the litigant.
See Id. at 589-90 (citing 31 U.S.C. §§
3701, 3711(a), 3716(a)). Therefore, litigants may not assign
their rights to an EAJA fees award to their attorneys and
courts are not at liberty to alter the dictates of the
Ratliff holding-courts in this district routinely
refuse to award fees directly to a party's attorney, even
if such party assigned the right to collect such fees to his
or her attorney. See, e.g., Stout v.
Colvin, No. C14-3037-LTS, 2016 WL 6436596, at *2 (N.D.
Iowa Oct. 28, 2016); Tracy v. Colvin, No. C
11-3072-MWB, 2013 WL 1213125, at *2 (N.D. Iowa Mar. 25, 2013)
(“I do not interpret Ratliff to allow me to
award fees directly to a litigant's attorney, even where
the litigant has assigned EAJA fees to his attorney.”).
However, courts have authorized the payments to be forwarded
to a litigant's attorney, after any applicable offset, if
it is consistent with the relevant agency or department's
practices. See Stout, 2016 WL 6436596, at *2;
Tracy, 2013 WL 1213125, at *3.
the court finds that Gerleman has cleared the preliminary
hurdles to proceed with her fee application. She is the
prevailing party in the underlying dispute. See
Ratliff, 560 U.S. at 591 (“We have long held that
the term ‘prevailing party' in fee statutes is a
‘term of art' that refers to the prevailing
litigant.”). The court further finds that the
Commissioner has not shown either a substantial justification
or special circumstances to preclude an award of attorney
fees. By stating that the Commissioner has no objection to
the award of non-excessive fees, the court finds that, at the
least, the Commissioner has failed to carry her burden of
establishing that her position was substantially justified.
The court further notes that the Commissioner has advanced no
facts or arguments regarding whether special circumstances
exist to preclude a fees award. The court finds that Gerleman
has established that the hourly rates requested for
attorney's time are permissible and the hours requested
are reasonable. See Motion at 2; Exhibits to the
Motion (docket no. 21-1). The total award is reasonable and