According to a unanimous opinion released today, Social Security law does not impose an aggregate cap of 25 percent on attorney’s fees for successful representation of a Social Security disability claimant before both the Social Security Administration and a court. Instead, a 25 percent cap applies separately to representation before the court. This is a win for attorney Richard Culbertson, who represented a disability claimant both before the Social Security Administration and in court. He may now collect separate attorney’s fees for his successful representation before the court.

The case turned on the meaning of “such representation” in 42 U.S.C. § 406(b), which provides in relevant part:

Whenever a court renders a judgment favorable to a claimant under [Title II of the Social Security Act] who was represented before the court by an attorney, the court may determine and allow as part of its judgment a reasonable fee for such representation, not in excess of 25 percent of the total of the past-due benefits to which the claimant is entitled by reason of such judgment.

The opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, first applied a plain-meaning approach. The court quoted the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English for the definition of “such”: “[o]f the kind or degree already described or implied,” and declared that “the only form of representation ‘already described’ in § 406(b) is ‘represent[ation] before the court by an attorney.’” Based on this statutory language, the court announced that “the 25% cap applies only to fees for representation before the court, not the agency.”

Although the court began its analysis by quoting an earlier opinion: “We begi[n] with the language of the statute itself, and that is also where the inquiry should end, for the statute’s language is plain,” the court did not end the inquiry with the dictionary definition of “such.” Instead, it also considered other provisions of the statute and found that the structure of the statute and its other provisions were consistent with its interpretation of the statute.

The court noted that two different provisions, 42 U.S.C. § 406(a) and 42 U.S.C. § 406(b), address different stages of representation and calculate fees differently. Section 406(b) applies to court representation and imposes a flat 25 percent cap on fees for court representation. Section 406(a) applies to representation before the agency and provides two methods for determining fees for agency representation. One method, Section 406(a)(2), applies to fee agreements and caps fees at the lesser of 25 percent of past-due benefits or $6,000. The second method, Section 406(a)(1), applies when there is no fee agreement and authorizes the agency to set any fee, including a fee that exceeds 25 percent of past-due benefits, as long as the fee is “reasonable.”

The Supreme Court concluded that it would make little sense to apply the Section 406(b) court-stage cap to agency-stage Section 406(a) fees or the aggregate of Sections 406(a) and 406(b) fees. First, because many claimants never litigate in court, it would be incongruous to impose a 25 percent cap on agency fees based on a statutory provision regulating representation before a court. Second, applying the 406(b) cap to agency representation without a fee agreement would impose a limitation that Congress did not include in the relevant statutory provision. According to the court, “[i]f Congress had wanted these fees to be capped at 25%, it presumably would have said so directly in subsection (a), instead of providing for a ‘reasonable fee’ in that subsection [§ 406(a)(1)] and adding a 25% cap in § 406(b) without even referencing subsection (a).”

The court then turned to amicus Amy Weil’s argument that, when the statute is read as a whole, it is evident that Congress intended to place a cumulative 25 percent cap on attorney’s fees. The court acknowledged that Weil was correct in noting that the Social Security Administration only withholds a single pool of 25 percent of past-due benefits from which to pay fees for both agency and court representation. The court, however, noted that the single pool was the result of agency policy and the statute itself authorizes two pools of money for direct payment of fees. More importantly, according to the court, “the amount of past-due benefits that the agency can withhold for direct payment does not delimit the amount of fees that can be approved for representation before the agency or the court.” Until 1968, the Social Security Act allowed fees for successful representation before the agency but did not provide for direct payment from past-due benefits. In addition, under current “§§ 406(a)(1) and (4), the agency can award a ‘reasonable fee’ that exceeds the 25% of past-due benefits it can withhold for direct payment.”

The outcome is not surprising in light of the clear text of the statute and the fact that neither party defended the judgment below. Although Weil “ably discharged her assigned responsibilities” as amicus, and “despite the force of [her] arguments,” the court ruled against her as it does in 75 percent of cases with court-appointed amici curiae.

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Posted in Culbertson v. Berryhill, Featured, Merits Cases

Recommended Citation: Kathryn Moore, Opinion analysis: Social Security cap on attorney’s fees applies separately to successful representation before a court, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 8, 2019, 6:28 PM), https://www.scotusblog.com/2019/01/opinion-analysis-social-security-cap-on-attorneys-fees-applies-separately-to-successful-representation-before-a-court/