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DeLong v Commissioner of Social Security Administration

Case No. 13-1990 (C.A. 6, Apr. 9, 2014)

Berniece J. DeLong appeals the District Court’s judgment denying her motion for attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412. The District Court vacated a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner), who denied DeLong Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income Benefits (SSI), and remanded DeLong’s case for further administrative proceedings on one of three grounds for relief that DeLong had raised. The District Court concluded, however, that DeLong was not entitled to attorney fees because the Commissioner’s position “was substantially justified.” 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). For the reasons that follow, we hold that this conclusion does not reflect an abuse of discretion, and we AFFIRM the judgment of the District Court.

I.



DeLong applied for DIB and SSI in 2003, both of which the Social Security Administration (Agency) denied on initial review. Although she subsequently obtained three hearings before an administrative law judge (ALJ), the ALJ concluded after each hearing that DeLong was not disabled. The Agency’s Appeals Council twice intervened, vacating the ALJ’s decision and remanding DeLong’s case for further administrative proceedings after the first and second hearings. After the ALJ’s third determination that DeLong was not disabled, however, the Appeals Council declined further review. Consequently, the ALJ’s determination became the Commissioner’s final decision.

On October 27, 2010, DeLong filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan to challenge the denial of benefits. Relying on 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), she asserted three grounds for relief: (1) that the Commissioner erred in relying on a consulting medical source rather than the opinions of DeLong’s treating physicians; (2) that the Commissioner improperly assessed other medical source opinions and lay testimony; and (3) that the Commissioner erred in assessing DeLong’s credibility and mischaracterized the evidence in the record. The District Court rejected the second and third claims out of hand, noting that “[c]redibility determinations . . . are peculiarly within the province of the ALJ,” explaining that the ALJ had not mischaracterized any of the underlying medical evidence, and finding no error in the ALJ’s consideration of lay opinion evidence. But, concluding that the ALJ had “failed to provide ‘good reasons’ for the weight he gave to the opinions of [DeLong’s] treating physicians,” the District Court vacated the denial of benefits and remanded DeLong’s case for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of § 405(g).
 

 

Judge(s): Bernice B. Donald
Jurisdiction: U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit
Related Categories: Administrative Law , Contracts , Government / Politics , Insurance , Securities
 
Circuit Court Judge(s)
Martha Daughtrey
Bernice Donald
Jeffrey Sutton

 
Appellant Lawyer(s) Appellant Law Firm(s)
Paul Jensen Jensen De Haan & Symko PC
Nicholas Romer Jensen De Haan & Symko PC
Benjamin Symko Jensen De Haan & Symko PC

 
Appellee Lawyer(s) Appellee Law Firm(s)
Niranjan Emani Social Security Administration

 

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district court. accordingly, her claim for attorney fees must fail. indication that the alj improperly cherry picked evidence; the same process can be described new standard that affected the outcome of this case.” but the district court never said that it (3) the record did not “strongly no. 13-1990 delong v. comm’r of soc. sec. page 3 no mistake mars the district court’s determination that the commissioner’s position in │ remanded delong’s case for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of it. couch v. sec. of health & human servs., 749 f.2d 359, 360 (6th cir. 1984) (per curiam). │ for the weight accorded their treating sources[.]”). at issue is whether, despite this failure, the additional facts only as necessary to dispose of the appeal. she asserted three grounds for relief: (1) that the commissioner erred commissioner’s position was substantially justified, that conclusion carries considerable weight (1993), and the commissioner does not contend that any special circumstances support denying a court remands a case under sentence six without having made any substantive ruling regarding the correctness of proceedings on one of three grounds for relief that delong had raised. the district court decision by the commissioner as long as “it is supported by substantial evidence and was made │ no. 13-1990 delong v. comm’r of soc. sec. page 7 what gayheart did—and this is the context in which the district court found it commissioner of social security, 710 f.3d 365 (6th cir. 2013), “tipped the scales in [delong’s] plaintiff-appellant, without substantial justification because the alj ignored treating source opinions “in their more neutrally as weighing the evidence.”). comm’r of soc. sec., 693 f.3d 709, 713 (6th cir. 2012). instead, a district court must affirm a eaja relief. accordingly, resolution of this appeal turns on whether the commissioner’s opinions of [delong’s] treating physicians,” the district court vacated the denial of benefits and concluding that the alj had “failed to provide ‘good reasons’ for the weight he gave to the hearings before an administrative law judge (alj), the alj concluded after each hearing that such an award is not appropriate when nothing about the specific remand at issue implies a lack deny benefits to delong, and to defend the denial, had a reasonable basis in law and fact. see relief. marshall v. comm’r of soc. sec., 444 f.3d 837, 840 (6th cir. 2006); see 28 u.s.c. _________________ pursuant to sixth circuit i.o.p. 32.1(b) ┘ accordingly, when the same judge who found remand appropriate also concludes that the explained, and remand may be the most appropriate vehicle for elucidating that position. thus, to recover attorney fees under the eaja, a plaintiff must satisfy three conditions: (1) she opinion no. 13-1990 § 405(g).3 discretion. damron v. comm’r of soc. sec., 104 f.3d 853, 855 (6th cir. 1997) (citing pierce v. we review the district court’s denial of attorney fees under the eaja for an abuse of § 2412(d)(1)(a). delong is a prevailing party, see shalala v. schaefer, 509 u.s. 292, 301-02 opinion “lack[ed] the type of focused analysis of the treating physicians’ opinions” that this ii. arguments that she raised unsuccessfully, and she contends that the district court’s rejection of appeal. cf. white v. comm’r of soc. sec., 572 f.3d 272, 284 (6th cir. 2009) (“[w]e see little procedural rather than substantive grounds. this appeal followed.5 3 an alj’s failure to provide an adequate explanation for his findings does not establish that a no. 13-1990 delong v. comm’r of soc. sec. page 4 2 did. in fact, because gayheart concerned neither the eaja nor the award of attorney fees more for the sixth circuit the appeals council declined further review. consequently, the alj’s determination became the ┐ ignored in their entirety.” but this argument misses the point. it is undisputed that the alj assertions, the alj did not ignore the opinions of delong’s treating physicians. as the record decision and remanding delong’s case for further administrative proceedings after the first and the western district of michigan to challenge the denial of benefits.1 fees and expenses under the [eaja].” couch, 749 f.2d at 360. this is so because the finding judgment denying her motion for attorney fees under the equal access to justice act (eaja), case and the district court’s own opinion that the commissioner had no reasonable argument _________________ review. as the district court observed, “[t]he lines of demarcation are not clear, and in the vast _________________ before: daughtrey, sutton, and donald, circuit judges. 28 u.s.c. § 2412. the district court vacated a decision of the commissioner of social security mischaracterized the evidence in the record. the district court rejected the second and third delong applied for dib and ssi in 2003, both of which the social security v. it.” both claims are reducible to an allegation that delong levied against the alj below— bernice b. donald, circuit judge. berniece j. delong appeals the district court’s no. 13-1990 delong v. comm’r of soc. sec. page 5 decision and remanded delong’s case based on this procedural error rather than on substantive who selectively considered evidence in denying benefits, 376 f.3d at 554, and flores having evidence to the court that she had not presented to the alj;4 demonstrating that the position had a “reasonable basis both in law and fact,” pierce, 487 u.s. at under [§ 405(g)].” see infra note 3 and accompanying text regarding the relevant provisions of § 405(g). failed to provide “good reasons” for the weight that he gave the opinions of delong’s treating second, and more importantly, remand on procedural grounds may result in yet another the state of the law. regarding the former, she urges that “[i]t is pellucid from the facts of this weight he found was appropriate for the various medical opinions,” but rather in his failure to helped identify “which reasons will later be found to be sufficiently ‘good reasons’” on appellate concluded, however, that delong was not entitled to attorney fees because the commissioner’s file name: 14a0068p.06 counsel unlike in flores, no post-remand administrative hearing is at issue here. additionally, position was substantially justified despite the reversal for several reasons: (1) the court had those arguments “does not dilute the fatal flaws within the alj’s decision—or justify defending │ not entitle delong to eaja fees. instead, the district court concluded, the commissioner’s discounting the weight given to a treating-source opinion.” 710 f.3d at 376. gayheart also symko, pc, grand rapids, michigan, for appellant. niranjan s. emani, social security on appeal. see, e.g., united states v. thouvenot, wade & moerschen, inc., 596 f.3d 378, 387 although remand on any ground theoretically may support an award of fees under the eaja, judgment of the district court. did so narrowly, expressly observing that “[t]he record did not strongly establish [delong’s] security income benefits (ssi), and remanded delong’s case for further administrative decision to deny benefits to delong, and subsequently to defend the denial, was substantially scarborough v. principi, 541 u.s. 401, 414-15 (2004), and it discharges that burden by under sentence four. 42 u.s.c. § 405(g); see hollon v. comm’r of soc. sec., 447 f.3d 477, 482-83 (6th cir. 2006). denial of benefits, and we might well sustain such a denial on appeal. accordingly, we hold that united states magistrate judge, including the entry of final judgment. delong subsequently filed a motion for attorney fees under the eaja, contending that this case was substantially justified. accordingly, the district court did not abuse its direction, this court must be firmly convinced that a mistake has been made.” id. here, despite having delong was not disabled. the agency’s appeals council twice intervened, vacating the alj’s instructive—was reaffirm that “[t]he commissioner is required to provide ‘good reasons’ for commissioner’s decision and remanded delong’s case for further administrative proceedings, it 565 (citations omitted). iv. because much of the factual and medical history of this case is irrelevant to delong’s appeal, we address on brief: benjamin j. symko, paul e. jensen, nicholas c. romer, jensen, de haan & position “was substantially justified.” 28 u.s.c. § 2412(d)(1)(a). for the reasons that follow, the government bears the burden of proving that a given position was substantially justified, commissioner of social security finally, in alleging that the district court mischaracterized the state of the law, delong, administration (agency) denied on initial review. although she subsequently obtained three united states court of appeals the commissioner’s decision. hollon, 447 f.3d at 486 (citation omitted). additionally, in remanding a case under 506, 512-13 (6th cir. 2007); under sentence four it may not consider such evidence, see id. here, delong attempted pursuant to proper legal standards.” id. here, although the district court vacated the to present evidence to the district court that she did not present to the alj, but the district court determined that delong begins by asserting that the district court gave too much weight to the pierce, 487 u.s. at 565. grounds. relying on this court’s opinion in howard v. barnhart, 376 f.3d 551 (6th cir. 2004), section 405(g) permits two types of remand: (1) pre-judgment, under sentence six; and (2) post-judgment, claims out of hand, noting that “[c]redibility determinations . . . are peculiarly within the physicians; that is the (sole) reason that the district court vacated the commissioner’s decision (7th cir. 2010). we find it dispositive here. the “substantial evidence” standard, according to which a district court reviews decisions no. 1:10-cv-01056—no. 1:10-cv-01056. │ the alj. plaintiff to recover attorney fees under the eaja and that the commissioner’s position was reflects, even where the alj did not reference certain treating physicians by name, he included §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3),2 court had a reasonable basis in law and fact. we conclude that it did. favor.” she devotes several pages of her brief to the proposition that “gayheart did not create a of substantial justification. cf. thouvenot, 596 f.3d at 387. so it is here. we hold that this conclusion does not reflect an abuse of discretion, and we affirm the 4 defendant-appellee. decided and filed: april 9, 2014 i. 1 berniece j. delong, administration, chicago, illinois, for appellee. rejected all but one of delong’s arguments; (2) delong improperly had attempted to present the commissioner’s position may be substantially justified even if a district court rejects as we have explained before, “[remand] alone is not a proper basis for the allowance of 1 _________________ entirety.” but two significant weaknesses undercut these claims. administration, no. 13-1990 delong v. comm’r of soc. sec. page 6 soc. sec., 482 f.3d 873, 875-76 (6th cir. 2007) (“claimants are entitled to receive good reasons determination that the commissioner’s position lacked substantial justification. id. majority of cases, a position defending a final administrative decision despite its imperfections no. 13-1990 delong v. comm’r of soc. sec. page 2 see supra note 3 and accompanying text. must be a “prevailing party”; (2) the government’s opposing position must have been without district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the commissioner’s decision to that the alj’s decision met the good reasons requirement—treating source opinions were relying on 42 u.s.c. substantially justified “on the procedural issue that caused it to remand.” 49 f.3d at 566. here, 5 and remanded delong’s case for further proceedings in the first place. see smith v. comm’r of underwood, 487 u.s. 552, 559 (1988)). “to find that the [d]istrict [c]ourt abused its discretion, denial of benefits lacked substantial justification. a fully justified position may be poorly court’s precedent requires. for the western district of michigan at grand rapids subject to judicial review as provided in [§ 405(g)] to the same extent as the commissioner’s final determinations case to the agency under sentence four, the district court considered only the evidence that had been presented to appeal from the united states district court │ delong also contends that the district court mischaracterized the merits of the case and will be justified.” this is such a case. (commissioner), who denied delong disability insurance benefits (dib) and supplemental sentence six, a district court may consider evidence that was not presented to the alj, bass v. mcmahon, 499 f.3d delong had failed to demonstrate that a sentence six remand was warranted. accordingly, in remanding delong’s commissioner’s final decision. as the district court recounted, “[t]he fatal flaw in the alj’s opinion [wa]s not in the by the commissioner, does not permit the court to resolve conflicts in evidence. ulman v. first, howard and flores are readily distinguishable, howard having concerned an alj │ establish” delong’s entitlement to benefits; and (4) the court had reversed the alj’s decision on the district court in flores wholly failed to consider whether the government’s position was second hearings. after the alj’s third determination that delong was not disabled, however, its assessment of the opinions of delong’s treating physicians and concluded that the alj’s “cherry picking” the record. the district court observed that this allegation is seldom successful medical evidence, and finding no error in the alj’s consideration of lay opinion evidence. but, invoked the proper standard of review, delong has established no mistake on the part of the physicians; (2) that the commissioner improperly assessed other medical source opinions and lay section 1383(c)(3) provides that final determinations by the commissioner after a hearing “shall be commissioner’s decision to deny benefits to delong and to defend that denial before the district in his analysis operations that they had performed and records that they had produced. justified. the denial of benefits and the commissioner’s defense of the denial had lacked substantial on october 27, 2010, delong filed a complaint in the united states district court for that a denial of benefits was not supported by substantial evidence is not tantamount to a recommended for full-text publication testimony; and (3) that the commissioner erred in assessing delong’s credibility and entitlement to benefits.” (emphasis added.) this finding is critical to our determination that the accordingly, howard is unavailing. addressed a post-remand administrative hearing, 49 f.3d at 566. here, contrary to delong’s province of the alj,” explaining that the alj had not mischaracterized any of the underlying generally, the district court could not have concluded that it governed this case. and we affirm the denial of attorney fees under the eaja to delong. because crediting it would require a court to re-weigh record evidence. it is no more availing on explain his findings adequately. (emphasis added.) the district court thus vacated the alj’s delong and the commissioner voluntarily consented to having all aspects of the case conducted by a that this distinction is a red herring. she claims that reversal on a procedural issue can entitle a in relying on a consulting medical source rather than the opinions of delong’s treating substantial justification; and (3) there must be no special circumstances that warrant denying and that of the ninth circuit in flores v. shalala, 49 f.3d 562 (9th cir. 1995), delong asserts > │ iii. again, misses the point. delong takes issue with the district court’s conclusion that gayheart v. by contrast, the district court expressly considered the alj’s failure to provide good reasons for justification. the district court denied the motion, noting that merely obtaining a reversal did


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