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Sinclair v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 11, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.




         Suzanne Sinclair ("Sinclair") brought this action seeking judicial review of a final administrative decision by the Social Security Commissioner (the "Commissioner") denying Sinclair disability benefits under the Social Security Act. On July 21, 2017, this Court vacated the Commissioner's decision and remanded the matter for further proceedings. Sinclair now moves for an award of attorneys' fees in the amount of $5, 316.59 pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C.. § 2412(d). For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS Sinclair's motion and awards $4, 891.42 in fees.


         Sinclair applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on November 9, 2012. Sinclair v. Berryhill, Civ. A. No. 16-10875-WGY, 2017 WL 3122563, at *1 (D. Mass. July 21, 2017). After these applications were twice denied, Sinclair requested a hearing, at which the hearing officer heard testimony from Sinclair and a vocational expert. Id. On September 26, 2014, the hearing officer issued a written decision finding that Sinclair was not disabled, and the Social Security Administration Appeals Council upheld the decision. Id.

         Sinclair appealed the final denial of benefits to this Court, arguing that the hearing officer (i) incorrectly determined that Sinclair's fibromyalgia was not a medically determinable impairment; (ii) improperly discounted the opinion of Sinclair's treating physician, Dr. Danilo Funa ("Dr. Funa"); and (iii) improperly relied on the testimony of the vocational expert. Id. at *4. The Court held that while Sinclair had not proven that fibromyalgia was a medically determinable impairment, the second and third errors she asserted warranted remand. Id. at *6-11. Specifically, the Court concluded that the hearing officer's improper discounting of Dr. Funa's opinion led to an incorrect residual functional capacity determination and that the vocational expert's testimony was unreliable because it was based on that determination and employed outdated job descriptions. Id. at *10-11. Sinclair thereafter filed this motion seeking attorneys' fees pursuant to the EAJA. EAJA Appl. Fees & Expenses, ECF No. 28. The Commissioner opposes the motion, arguing that a fee award is inappropriate because the hearing officer's position (and by extension, the Commissioner's position) was substantially justified. Def.'s Opp'n Pl.'s Appl. Fees & Expenses ("Def.'s Opp'n") 1, ECF No. 29. In the alternative, the Commissioner seeks to reduce the fee award to $4, 627.15. See Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         The EAJA provides:

Except as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses . . . 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 . . . 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). The Commissioner does not contest that Sinclair is a "prevailing party" under this statute. Def.'s Opp'n 4. The Commissioner argues, however, that the government's position was "substantially justified" such that Sinclair is not entitled to an award of attorneys' fees. Id.

         A. Substantial Justification

         The burden for showing substantial justification lies with the government. See McDonald v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs., 884 F.2d 1468, 1475 (1st Cir. 1989). The government must show that both its litigating position and the underlying agency action had "a reasonable basis in law and fact" and were "justified to a degree that could satisfy a reasonable person." Id. at 1475 (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565, 566 n.2 (1988)); see also id. at 1476. "[T]he fact that the government lost does not create a presumption that its position was not substantially justified." United States v. Yoffe, 775 F.2d 447, 450 (1st Cir. 1985). The reason that the government lost, however, "has everything to do with the question whether its position was substantially justified." Rioux v. Barnhart, No. 00-302-P-H, 2002 WL 91877, at *2 (D. Me. Jan. 24, 2002).

         The government contends that its position was substantially justified because the Court "rejected many of [the] Plaintiff's arguments, " identified errors relating only to the "articulation of [the hearing officer's] rationale, not its substance, " and accepted an argument that was "without guidance from the First Circuit, and . . . was the subject of a divide amongst other district and circuit courts." Def.'s Opp'n 1-2. The Court disagrees.

         Of the three major arguments Sinclair presented in her appeal, this Court rejected the first (incorrect conclusion as to fibromyalgia) but accepted the second (improper discounting of Dr. Funa's opinion) and third (improper reliance on vocational expert's testimony). While the Commissioner correctly points out that the Court found reasonable one of the hearing officer's four justifications for discounting Dr. Funa's opinion (certain inconsistencies between Dr. Funa's opinion and other medical evidence in the record), id. at 8, the Court rejected the hearing officer's three other justifications, see Sinclair, 2017 WL 3122563 at *9-10. The Commissioner argues that had the hearing officer provided only that first reason, her decision to discount Dr. Funa's opinion "would have likely survived substantial evidence review, " Def.'s Opp'n 7, but this hypothetical assumption is unhelpful. Had the hearing officer based her decision on that factor alone, she might well have discounted Dr. Funa's ...

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