In Costa v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 2012 DJDAR 11807 (2012), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided that “individual attention must be given to each case” involving attorney fee awards under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). The court concluded that the magistrate judge abused his discretion by applying a “de facto” cap on the award.

The plaintiff made an application for disability benefits. The state disability agency denied the application, as well as the request for reconsideration. Subsequently, an administrative law judge (ALJ) heard the appeal and found that the plaintiff was not disabled, and denied the claim.

The plaintiff appealed the denial of his disability claim to the district court. On appeal, the magistrate judge reversed the administrative law judge’s decision. The magistrate found that the plaintiff was in fact disabled. The plaintiff then sought attorney fees under the EAJA.

The magistrate judge significantly reduced the claim for fees for the plaintiff’s lawyer. The reduction was based on the magistrate’s determination of what he deemed would be “reasonable” for the completion of certain legal tasks. In issuing his decision, the magistrate relied on a published order from an Oregon District Judge stating that 20 to 40 hours is a reasonable amount of time to spend on basic disability cases. On this basis, the magistrate deducted approximately one-third of the fees requested by the plaintiff.

The plaintiff filed an appeal, and the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the decision of the magistrate, reducing the fee award. The court noted that the EAJA provides for the award of attorney fees to a party that prevails against the United States in a proceeding for a review of an action taken by a federal agency. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the magistrate abused his discretion by applying a de facto subjective policy limiting social security claimants to 20 to 40 hours of attorney time.

The court explained that in deciding a fee claim, the magistrate is required to make findings why the amount of time requested for a particular task is unreasonable. Because the magistrate judge did not provide specific reasons for making significant reductions to the number of hours of work the plaintiff requested, the magistrate judge’s approach was improper.