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).”Read Full Article