United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
WILLIAM G. YOUNG DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
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.
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employed outdated job descriptions.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.
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
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.
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).
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
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 ...