Justices to Clarify Attorney’s Fee Rules in Disability Benefits Cases

(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday said it will resolve an appellate court split on the question of caps on attorney’s fees in Social Security benefits cases.

The 6th, 9th and 10th Circuits have held federal regulations mandate that a 25-percent cap on attorney’s fees only applies to Social Security benefits cases argued before a court.

But the 4th, 5th and 11th Circuits have held the cap on fees also applies in cases that never make it to court, but are heard only on the administrative level.

The case the justices will consider during their next term comes to the court from the 11th Circuit.

Petitioner Richard Culbertson successfully represented four clients who had been denied disability benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security.

After winning all four cases, Culbertson asked a federal judge to award him attorney’s fees.

Two federal statutes govern the awarding of attorney’s fees in Social Security cases. One, 42 USC § 406, allows the Commissioner of Social Security to set a fee for representing a client at the administrative level, and the district court to set a fee for representation of a claimant in court.

The other, 28 USC § 2412, allows a claimant to request fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

Culbertson asked for different fees for each of the four cases at issue, with dramatically different results. In one case, he sought fees of $4,488, but was only awarded $1,623. In another, he asked for $3,325, and was given it, but only so long as he agreed not to come back to the court and ask for more.

In two cases, Culbertson asked for $14,140 and $10,707 in attorney’s fees, respectively, as was had his requests rejected.

Culbertson appealed the fee awards, arguing the district court did not correctly calculate the fees he is entitled to under these statutes and 11th Circuit precedent.

But the 11th Circuit disagreed and upheld the lower court’s decision.

As is its custom, the justices did not explain their rationale for taking up the case.

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