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Lydia Butterfield v. Michael J. Astrue

May 4, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Buckwalter, S.J.


Currently pending before the Court is Plaintiff Lydia Butterfield's Motion for Attorney Fees Under the Equal Access to Justice Act and Defendant the Commissioner of Social Security's ("the Commissioner") Opposition thereto. For the following reasons, the Motion is denied.


On July 12, 2002, fifty-five year old Plaintiff Lydia Butterfield filed for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301, et seq., alleging disability since February 6, 2002. The state agency denied her claim and, following Plaintiff's timely request for review, an administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Diane C. Moskal. ALJ Moskal denied benefits in a decision dated August 11, 2003, and the Appeals Council subsequently rejected Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff then initiated a civil action in this Court, which reversed the decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),*fn1 on three grounds: (1) failure to include Plaintiff's mild limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace in the residual functional capacity assessment ("RFC"); (2) failure to pose a hypothetical question to the vocational expert ("VE") that included Plaintiff's mental impairment; and (3) failure to specifically address Plaintiff's credibility.

After a second hearing, ALJ Moskal denied Plaintiff's claims via a decision dated July 18, 2005. On appeal to federal court, however, Defendant voluntarily requested remand because portions of the recording of the second hearing were inaudible. Accordingly, this Court remanded the case, on April 10, 2005, pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).*fn2

A new ALJ, Paula F. Garrety, then held a third administrative hearing. On September 17, 2007, ALJ Garrety denied the claims, making explicit findings under the five-step sequential analysis codified in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ determined that although Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity either from the alleged onset of her disability through 2005 or since March 2007, Plaintiff had, in fact, engaged in substantial gainful activity from 2005 through March 2007 by caring for her five great-grandchildren. (R. 23.)*fn3 Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments in the form of a chronic lumbar strain/sprain status post injury in 2002, together with multiple non-severe impairments, as follows: depression, left elbow impairment, left knee impairment, and left foot tenosynovitis. (Id.) The ALJ noted a significant gap in treatment for physical pain from 2002 to 2005, and credited the report of consultative examiner Dr. Stanton Bree, which revealed that Plaintiff had no functional limitations. (Id.) As to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ acknowledged the previous ALJ's findings, reviewed Plaintiff's mental health evaluations, and considered Plaintiff's testimony, prior to reaching her ultimate determination that Plaintiff had only a mild limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. 24-27.) The ALJ went on to partially credit Plaintiff's testimony about the limitations caused by her medically determinable mental impairments, but found Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these impairments not entirely credible. (R. 26-27.) In making this determination, however, the ALJ offered no discussion of the supporting statements provided by Plaintiff's mother or daughter. Third, the ALJ declined to find that Plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, met or medically equaled one of the Listings of Impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Part 202 of 20 C.F.R. (R. 28.) Fourth, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work that would accommodate mild deficits in concentration, persistence, or pace, secondary to a mild cognitive impairment. (R. 31.) Finally, based on the testimony of the VE who found that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a housekeeper, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from February 6, 2002 through the date of the decision. (Id.) Accordingly, the ALJ declined Plaintiff's request for benefits.

Plaintiff again sought review from this Court. On July 15, 2010, United States Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") rejecting the majority of Plaintiff's claims, but nonetheless suggesting that the case be remanded for further review. Specifically, Judge Rice found no merit to Plaintiff's allegation that the ALJ failed to adjudicate her claim de novo. Moreover, Judge Rice found substantial evidence to support the ALJ's findings that: (1) Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity as a babysitter from 2005 through March 2007; (2) Plaintiff did not have a demonstrable visual impairment of glaucoma and bilateral cataracts; and (3) the medical opinions from Plaintiff's treating providers were not entitled to significant weight. Finally, Judge Rice determined that the ALJ had erred by failing to address the report of Plaintiff's daughter, Parthenia Parker, and the undated letter from Plaintiff's mother, Charlotte Easton. Given this single error, Judge Rice proposed remand for consideration of these statements and their impact on the ALJ's credibility and RFC determinations.

Plaintiff thereafter raised four Objections to the R&R: (1) the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity from 2005 through March 2007 was not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to adjudicate the claim de novo; (3) the ALJ erred by failing to consider all of Plaintiff's impairments; and (4) the ALJ erred by failing to provide a legally acceptable explanation for rejecting evidence favorable to Plaintiff's claim. This Court found no merit to any of the Objections and remanded the case solely on the bases identified in the R&R. Subsequently, the Court denied Plaintiff's request for reconsideration.

On March 2, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Attorney's Fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. Defendant filed a brief in opposition to that Motion, claiming that the Commissioner was substantially justified in his defense of the case. On March 20, 2011, Plaintiff submitted a Reply Brief, making this matter ripe for consideration.


Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2412(b):

Unless expressly prohibited by statute, a court may award reasonable fees and expenses of attorneys, in addition to the costs which may be awarded pursuant to subsection (a), to the prevailing party in any civil action brought by or against the United States or any agency or any official of the United States acting in his or her official capacity in any court having jurisdiction of such action. The United States shall be liable for such fees and expenses to the same extent that any other party would be liable under the common law or under the terms of any statute which specifically provides for such an award.

Id. The United States Supreme Court has explained that "[t]he most useful starting point for determining the amount of a reasonable fee is the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate. This calculation provides an objective basis on which to make an initial estimate of the value of a lawyer's services." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).

The EAJA permits awards of attorney's fees only to the extent they are reasonable. Citizens Council of Del. Cnty. v. Brinegar, 741 F.2d 584, 594-95 (3d Cir. 1984). The party seeking attorney's fees thus has the burden to prove that its request is reasonable. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 892 F.2d 1177, 1183 (3d Cir. 1990); Walton v. Massanari,177 F. Supp. 2d 359, 361 (E.D. Pa. 2001). "To meet its burden, the fee petitioner must 'submit evidence supporting the hours worked and rates claimed.'" Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183 (quoting Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433). A party claiming entitlement to attorney fees "should make a good-faith effort to exclude from a fee request hours that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary, just as a lawyer in private practice ethically is obligated to exclude such hours from his fee submission." Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434. When evaluating a request for fees, the Court should similarly exclude hours that were not reasonably expended. Rode, 892 F.2d at 1183. Although the district court retains discretion to adjust the amount of the fee award, Barry v. Astrue, No. CIV.A.05-1825, 2007 WL 2022085, at ...

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