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Taylor v. Heckler

argued: July 14, 1987.

TAYLOR, CATHERINE D., APPELLANT
v.
MARGARET M. HECKLER, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil Action No. 85-5601.

Author: Higginbotham

Opinion OF THE COURT

A. LEON HIGGINBOTHAM, JR., Circuit Judge.

This appeal concerns the denial of appellant's motion for fees and other expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act, Extension and Amendment ("EAJA"), Pub. L. 99-80, 99 Stat. 183, codified at 5 U.S.C. § 504 (Supp. IV 1986) and 28 U.S.C. § 2412 (1982 & Supp. Ill 1985). The district court first rejected the government's position and granted appellant's request for disability benefits. Another trial judge later summarily denied appellant's EAJA fee motion in a one-page order. Taylor v. Bowen, No. 85-5601 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 29, 1986). This second district court found that the "defense of this action" by appellee the Secretary of Health and Human Services ("the Secretary") "was substantially justified." Id. We conclude that the district court's judgment on the EAJA fee motion was legally erroneous. Because the government has failed to demonstrate a solid and well-founded basis in truth for its underlying denial of appellant's request for disability benefits, we will reverse the judgment of the district court and remand this matter for a calculation of appellant's fees and other expenses under EAJA.

I.

In her request for Social Security disability benefits, appellant Catherine D. Taylor alleged that she was disabled by incessant lower back pain. Uncontradicted record evidence demonstrates that Taylor's condition leaves her unable to perform even menial household tasks. The record also shows that Taylor's formal education ceased at age sixteen when she completed the sixth grade, and that her most recent employment was in 1971, when she worked as a waitress.

Two treating physicians and one consulting physician examined Taylor and submitted the medical evidence contained in the administrative record. Dr. William Cassidy treated her as an outpatient and was her treating physician during three hospital visits. On July 14, 1983, Taylor was admitted to Philadelphia's Northeastern Hospital by Dr. Cassidy. She complained of severe lower back pain. An x-ray of the lumbosacral spine revealed bilateral spondylolysis of L5.*fn1 It also revealed a slight narrowing of the L4, L5 disc space. Taylor was placed in traction and given physical therapy and medication. After nine days of hospitalization, she was discharged; Dr. Cassidy reported that Taylor's condition at that time was "much improved." Appendix ("App.") at 104. On January 3, 1984, however, Taylor was readmitted to Northeastern Hospital by Dr. Cassidy; she was then diagnosed as suffering from "severe low back pain [that] did not respond to outpatient treatment and rest at home." Id. at 95. Dr. Cassidy's examination revealed "extreme tenderness over the lumbosacral joint." Id. After receiving treatment similar to that she had received during her first hospitalization, Taylor this time was released from the hospital after seven days. On August 15, 1984, she was admitted to Northeastern Hospital for the third time. An examination showed "tenderness . . . present over the spine of L5 and S1." Id. at 120. A CAT scan revealed that Taylor had "a herniated disc at the L4-5 level." Id. Following the CAT scan, however, she "progressed very well" and was discharged ten days later. Id. In a September 26, 1984, report submitted to Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination, n.2 [Footnote Omitted] Dr. Cassidy indicated that any bending caused Taylor to experience pain that was relieved only by bed rest and medication. Id. at 124.

On July 16, 1984, Dr. Richard Paolino, also a treating physician, examined Taylor and diagnosed her condition as a "lumbar strain and sprain, lumbar myofascitis."*fn3 App. at 115. In his report to the Bureau of Disability Determination, Dr. Paolino noted that, at the time he examined Taylor, she was "unable to walk, stand, [or] sit for long periods of time without experiencing some type of stiffness or pain. [Taylor is] restricted in reaching for objects on shelf." Id. Dr. Paolino also noted that Taylor had a "marked impairment of movement to any degree of lateral bending and forward flexion or extension." Id.

The third physician, Dr. Nicholas Frignito, conducted a consultative examination of Taylor on April 16, 1985. He concluded that, due to lower back pain, "there is no doubt that [Taylor] is limited in the amount of walking she can do, or the amount of lifting and bending she can do." App. at 131. Dr. Frignito's diagnosis was "Herniated Nucleus Pulposus at L4 and 5 . . . with chronic lumbar pain." Id.

On July 12, 1984, Taylor applied for Supplementary Security Income based on disability. Her application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Taylor requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and a hearing was held on April 9, 1985. App. at 23-26. At this hearing, which lasted a total of eight minutes, Taylor testified that she continuously suffers from lower back pain and that she takes large amounts of medication to alleviate her pain. Id. at 28-30. She stated that she can walk no farther than one block and that she can sit for no more than an hour at a time. Id. at 30.

The ALJ acknowledged at the hearing that Taylor has a problem with her back that "seems to be getting worse." App. at 32. Nonetheless, on June 11, 1985, the ALJ denied Taylor's request for disability benefits. App. at 9-15. Her request for review was subsequently denied by the Appeals Council. App. at 4. The decision of the ALJ thus stood as the final decision of the Secretary. Id.

Taylor appealed to the district court for review of the Secretary's final determination. Both Taylor and the Secretary filed motions for summary judgment. On May 14, 1986, the district court, adopting a magistrate's report, granted Taylor's summary judgment motion. Taylor v. Bowen, No. 85-5601 (E.D. Pa. May 14, 1986). The government did not appeal from this judgment for Taylor. Approximately two months later, the trial judge died. Taylor's case was then reassigned to another member of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Before this second trial judge, Taylor filed a motion for attorney's fees under EAJA. The district court denied this motion without opinion. Taylor, No. 85-5601 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 29, 1986).

Our appellate jurisdiction to review the district court's final order is conferred by 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1982), and our standard of review is plenary.*fn4 E.g. Russell v. Heckler, 814 F.2d 148, 152 (3d Cir.), petition for cert. filed, 56 U.S.L.W. 3258 (U.S. Oct. 6, 1987) (No. 87-251, filed ...


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