Meier v. Colvin

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Administrative Law
  • Date Filed: 07-23-2013
  • Case #: 11-35736
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Fisher for the Court; Circuit Judge Fletcher and District Judge J.P. Jones
  • Full Text Opinion

Where a party moves under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), for an award of attorney’s fees and costs, the United States government holds the burden of proving its position – including both its litigation position and the underlying agency action giving rise to the civil action – was substantially justified. Further, in the context of social security, the courts treat a decision of an administrative law judge as the underlying agency action.

An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) denied Jeffrey Meier’s application for social security disability benefits and the district court affirmed. The Ninth Circuit initially reversed and remanded the case for an award of benefits in an unpublished memorandum of disposition. Meier then moved for an award of attorney’s fees and costs under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), but the district court denied the motion. Meier argued an abuse of discretion where the district court denied his EAJA fees on appeal. The panel first recognized that, where a party moves under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), for an award of attorney’s fees and costs, the United States government holds the burden of proving its position was substantially justified. The panel then acknowledged that the government’s position includes both its litigation position and the underlying agency action giving rise to the civil action. Finally, the panel held that, in the context of Social Security, an ALJ’s decision is treated as the underlying agency action. In doing so, the panel acknowledged the Ninth Circuit had long treated ALJ decisions this way, but had never previously explained this stance. First, the panel reasoned that the plain language of the EAJA supports its stance, in that the ALJ’s decision is what spawns allegations of error in a civil complaint. Second, the panel noted that an ALJ’s decision typically serves as the government’s position as an adjudicator, as well as a party. This is true because in a typical case, where an appeal is denied, the ALJ’s decision is the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. After explaining the proper approach to the substantial justification test, the panel further held that the United States’ underlying agency conduct was not substantially justified. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

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