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Chonko v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

April 22, 2008

NICHOLAS CHONKO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Martini, U.S.D.J.

OPINION

Chonko files this motion seeking attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. These fees resulted from his appeal of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Chonko social security disability insurance benefits. The Commissioner presents only two objections. First, the Commissioner argues that the amount Chonko requests is not reasonable. Second, the Commissioner argues that any award should go to Chonko, not Chonko's pro bono counsel. The Court finds that Chonko's request is reasonable. The Court further holds that EAJA fees are properly awarded to Chonko, not his counsel. Accordingly, Chonko's motion is GRANTED.

I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

This motion requires only a cursory description of the facts and proceedings. Chonko applied for social security disability benefits. The Commissioner denied the application. Chonko appealed the Commissioner's decision to this Court, which affirmed. Chonko then appealed to the Third Circuit. Before the Third Circuit heard Chonko's appeal, however, the parties jointly stipulated to remand the case back to the Commissioner.

During his appeal to the Third Circuit, Chonko was represented pro bono by a team from the Rutgers Law School Urban Legal Clinic. The team was lead by Rutgers Law Professor Jon Dubin, the Director of Clinical Programs at the law school. The other two team members were third-year Rutgers Law School students Michael McGillion and Safia Hussain.*fn1

Chonko now moves under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412, for attorney's fees representing the Rutgers team's work for the Third Circuit appeal.*fn2 Chonko seeks $15,182.96 in fees for work performed by Dubin, McGillion, and Hussain. He moves the Court to award these fees directly to the Rutgers Urban Legal Clinic.

The Commissioner opposes Chonko's request. The Commissioner concedes that Chonko is entitled to attorney's fees under EAJA for the Rutgers team's work on appeal and objects to the award on only two grounds. First, the Commissioner claims that Chonko's fee request is unreasonably high. Specifically, the Commissioner argues that the number of hours the Rutgers team spent litigating the appeal was excessive. Second, the Commissioner claims that any award of attorney's fees under EAJA should go to Chonko, not his attorneys.

II. DISCUSSION

The Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA") provides as follows:

Except as otherwise specifically provided by statute, a court shall award to a prevailing party other than the United States fees and other expenses, in addition to any costs awarded pursuant to subsection (a), 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 in any court having jurisdiction of that action, unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.

Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). EAJA requires a district court to award a "prevailing party" reasonable attorney's fees resulting from the appeal of an adverse decision of the Social Security Administration Commissioner. See Kadelski v. Sullivan, 30 F.3d 399 (3d Cir. 1994).

A. Whether Chonko's Claimed Attorney's Fees Are Reasonable

The Commissioner concedes that Chonko is entitled to reasonable attorney's fees but claims that the fees Chonko requests are unreasonably high. The Court disagrees.

EAJA permits awards of attorney's fees only to the extent they are reasonable. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983). "Although counsel are entitled to full compensation for their efforts, '[i]t does not follow that the amount of time actually expended is the amount of time reasonably expended.'" Bunn v. Bowen, 637 F. Supp. 464, 469 (E.D.N.C. 1986) (quoting Copeland v. Marshall, 641 F.2d 880, 891 (D.C. Cir. 1981) (en banc)). If attorney hours are unnecessary, redundant, or inefficient, the court should reduce the hours claimed to reflect a reasonable award. Ashton v. Pierce, 580 F. Supp. 440, 442 (D.D.C. 1984). The prevailing party's attorneys may assist the court in this regard and indeed should make a good faith effort to exclude fee requests that are excessive. See Hensley, 461 U.S. at 434.

Chonko has set forth for the Court the hours that the Rutgers team spent litigating the appeal. He asserts that Dubin spent 86.25 hours litigating the Third Circuit appeal. Of this, Dubin allegedly spent 55.5 hours initially litigating the appeal, 15.75 hours drafting and filing a reply brief for this motion, and 15 hours working on a surreply to the Commissioner's opposition. (Pl.'s Pet. for Att'y Fees ¶ 10; Supplemental Decl. of Jon C. Dubin ¶ 10; Second Supplemental Decl. of Jon C. Dubin; Third Supplemental Decl. of Jon C. Dubin.) Chonko also asserts that Hussain ...


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