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Yulfo-Reyes v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 13, 2019

MAYRA ENID YULFO-REYES
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting COMMISSIONER, Social Security ADMINISTRATION

          RULING ON PLAINTIFF'S APPLICATION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES [DOC. #39]

          HON. SARAH A. L. MERRIAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Mayra Enid Yulfo-Reyes (“plaintiff”) has filed an application for attorney's fees pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act [Doc. #39], along with an “[a]ffirmation in [s]upport” of that application [Doc. #40]. Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“defendant”) has filed a memorandum in opposition to plaintiff's application [Doc. #41], to which plaintiff has filed a reply [Doc. #42]. For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's Application for Attorney's Fees [Doc. #39] is granted, in part, in the amount of $12, 313.80.

         I. Background

         On December 18, 2009, plaintiff concurrently applied for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) claiming that she had been disabled since September 18, 2007. See Certified Transcript of the Administrative Record, Doc. #16, compiled on January 11, 2018, (hereinafter “Tr.”) at 203; Tr. 215; Tr. 541-52.[1] Following a lengthy procedural history which has spanned nine years and involved four administrative hearings, an administrative remand, and a prior remand by the district court, plaintiff, then self-represented, filed the Complaint in this case on December 6, 2017. [Doc. #1]. On February 8, 2018, defendant filed her Answer and the official transcript. [Doc. #16].

         On April 19, 2018, the Court appointed Attorney John J. Morgan as pro bono counsel for plaintiff. [Docs. #22, #23]. On July 19, 2018, and in accordance with the Court's April 19, 2018, Order [Doc. #22], plaintiff filed her Motion for Order of Reversal, or in the Alternative Remand for Further Proceedings (“Motion to Reverse”), along with a supporting memorandum and medical chronology [Doc. #32]. On September 17, 2018, defendant filed a Motion to Affirm the Decision of the Commissioner [Doc. #34], to which plaintiff filed a Reply Memorandum on October 1, 2018 [Doc. #35]. On November 8, 2018, the undersigned issued a Ruling granting plaintiff's Motion to Reverse, and ordered a remand of this matter for a calculation and award of benefits. [Doc. #36]. Judgment entered on November 9, 2018. [Doc. #37]. An Amended Judgment was thereafter entered on November 14, 2018. [Doc. #38].

         On January 7, 2019, plaintiff filed an application for attorney's fees together with an affidavit, assignment of fees, and time sheet. [Docs. #39, #40]. On January 17, 2019, defendant filed a memorandum in opposition to plaintiff's application. [Doc. #41]. Plaintiff filed a reply to defendant's opposition on January 24, 2019. [Doc. #42].

         II. Discussion

         A. Entitlement to Fee

         A party who prevails in a civil action against the United States may seek an award of fees and costs under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA” or the “Act”), 28 U.S.C. §2412, the purpose of which is “to eliminate for the average person the financial disincentive to challenging unreasonable government actions.” Commissioner, I.N.S. v. Jean, 496 U.S. 154, 163 (1990) (citing Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 883 (1989)). In order for an award of attorney's fees to enter, this Court must find (1) that the plaintiff is a prevailing party, (2) that the Commissioner's position was without substantial justification, (3) that no special circumstances exist that would make an award unjust, and (4) that the fee petition was filed within thirty days of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. §2412(d)(1)(B).[2]

         The Court finds that plaintiff has satisfied the requirements of 28 U.S.C. §2412(d)(1)(B), and an award of fees may enter. Defendant does not contest that point. See Doc. #41 at 1. Specifically, the Court finds that: (1) plaintiff is a prevailing party because the Court granted plaintiff's Motion to Reverse and ordered a remand of this matter for a calculation and award of benefits; (2) the Commissioner's position was without substantial justification; (3) on the current record, no special circumstances exist that would make an award unjust; and (4) the fee petition was timely filed.[3] 28 U.S.C. §2412(d)(1)(B). The Court next turns to the reasonableness of the fees sought.

         B. Reasonableness of Fees Sought

         Plaintiff seeks fees in the amount of $16, 551.80, representing 80.65 hours of attorney time at the rate of $205.23 per hour. See Doc. #39 at 1. Plaintiff's counsel generally asserts that the fees sought are reasonable because the “case is a highly complex appeal” and the record contains thousands of pages. Doc. #39 at 1. Plaintiff's counsel also contends that his work involved “detailed analysis” and “extensive legal research[, ]” and that “the time billed substantially underrepresents the work necessary (and actually done) to represent the claimant properly.” Id. at 2, 3. In that regard, plaintiff's counsel represents that such time was not submitted to account for his “‘learning curve' required to understand the underlying legal predicate for plaintiffs claim.” Id. at 3 (sic).

         Defendant does not contest the hourly rate sought, [4] but instead asserts that “80.65 hours is excessive and unreasonable for this social security matter.” Doc. #41 at 2. Defendant also specifically objects to an award of fees for time billed for clerical tasks; the time billed in connection with the EAJA application; and the time billed in responding to the Court's Order to Show Cause. See Id. at 8-9.

         It is plaintiff's burden to establish entitlement to a fee award, and the Court has the discretion to determine what fee is “reasonable.” Hensley v. Eckerhart,461 U.S. 424, 433, 437 (1983) (interpreting 42 U.S.C. §1988, which allows a “prevailing party” to recover “a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs”).[5] This Court has a duty to review plaintiff's itemized time log to determine the reasonableness of the hours requested and to exclude hours “that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary[.]” Id. at 434. “Determining a ‘reasonable attorney's fee' is a matter that is committed to the sound discretion of a trial judge.” J.O. v. Astrue, No. 3:11CV1768(DFM), 2014 WL 1031666, at *1 (D. Conn. ...


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