Culbertson v. Berryhill

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Attorney Fees
  • Date Filed: January 8, 2019
  • Case #: 17-773
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court
  • Full Text Opinion

Section 406 (a) and (b) of the Social Security Act separately address fees to be awarded to attorneys that represent claimants at the agency stage and in court, not an aggregate amount for both.

Petitioner, an attorney, represented a claimant who sought Social Security disability benefits. The agency denied benefits and the claimant sought judicial review in district court. The claimant “signed a contingency-fee agreement to pay 25 per cent of the total past-due benefits” to Petitioner for “representation in Federal Court.” The agreement excluded fees due for representation before the agency. After the claimant prevailed, the agency awarded Petitioner fees under 42 U.S.C. § 406(a). Petitioner moved for the 25 per cent in fees in district court under § 406(b), but the court subtracted the amount Petitioner was paid through the agency from the 25 per cent. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that under § 406(a)-(b) fees are capped at a combined 25 per cent. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the provisions are distinct from one another and that the 25 per cent does not aggregate. The Court reasoned that by the plain meaning of the statute, representation before the court and the agency are distinguished. Further, the fees for each provision are calculated in different ways. Section 406(b) is a flat fee and section 406(a) provides two ways to determine fees. In conclusion, the fee structures apply to separate stages of representation. REVERSED and REMANDED.

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