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Category: Fee Clause

SCOTUS Considers Attorney Fee Caps in Social Security Disability Claims

November 5, 2018

A recent SCOTUS Blog post by Kathryn Moore Guest, “Argument Preview: Justices Consider Cap on Attorney’s Fees for Successful Representation of Social Security Disability Claimants,” reports that attorney Richard Culbertson successfully represented several Social Security disability claimants both before the Social Security Administration and in federal court.  Prior to his representation, he entered into fee agreements that provided that the clients would pay him attorney’s fees equal to 25 percent of past-due benefits for successful representation before the court as well as separate attorney’s fees for successful representation before the agency.  Following longstanding precedent of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, the court below capped his attorney’s fees at 25 percent of past-due benefits for representation before both the Social Security Administration and the court.

In granting certiorari, the Supreme Court agreed to resolve a split among the federal courts of appeals as to whether the Social Security Act imposes an aggregate cap on attorney’s fees of 25 percent of past-due benefits for representation before both the court and the Social Security Administration, or instead the 25 percent cap applies separately to representation before the court.

The Social Security Act regulates the amount and manner in which an attorney may collect fees from a disability claimant for successful representation before the agency and the court.  42 USC § 406(a) governs attorney’s fees for successful representation before the agency, while 42 USC § 406(b) governs attorney’s fees for successful representation before the court.  The Equal Access to Justice Act also authorizes a court to order recovery of “reasonable attorney’s fees” from the government in certain cases in which the claimant is successful and the government’s position was not “substantially justified.”  If attorney’s fees are awarded under the EAJA and under Section 406(b), the attorney must refund the lesser fee to the claimant.  The Social Security Administration withholds a single pool of 25 percent of past-due benefits from which to certify for payment any and all attorney’s fees awarded under Section 406(a) and/or 406(b).

Section 406(a) authorizes two avenues for recovery of attorney’s fees from a claimant for successful representation before the agency.  Under Section 406(a)(1), an attorney may file a “fee petition” with the Social Security Administration.  Alternatively, under a more recent and more commonly used, streamlined process, an attorney may seek approval of a “fee agreement” with a claimant under Section 406(a)(2).  No cap is imposed under Section 406(a)(1).  Section 406(a)(2) limits attorney’s fees to the lesser of 25 percent of past-due benefits or a specified dollar amount, currently set at $6,000.

For successful representation before a court, Section 406(b)(1)(A) provides in relevant part:

Whenever a court renders a judgment favorable to a claimant under [Title II] 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.  Section 406(b)(1)(A) further provides that “no other fee may be payable or certified for payment for such representation except as provided in this paragraph.”

Focusing on the “plain meaning” of Section 406(b), Culbertson argues that the term “such representation” in Section 406(b)(1)(A) clearly refers to the antecedent phrase “represented before the court,” and thus under the plain meaning of Section 406(b), the 25 percent cap applies to representation “before the court by an attorney” and does not include representation before the agency.  Culbertson also argues that a separate cap on attorney’s fees for representation before the court is consistent with the structure of Section 406 as well as the purpose of the statute and its legislative history.

Almost 40 years ago, in the first circuit-court decision to address this issue, Dawson v. Finch, the 5th Circuit held that Section 406(b) imposes an aggregate cap on attorney’s fees for representation in the administrative proceedings as well as before the court.  In reaching this result, the 5th Circuit looked to the legislative history of the provision in order to discern Congress’ intent.  Specifically, the court focused on the fact that Congress added Section 406(b) to address two goals.  First, Congress sought to encourage effective legal representation by “insuring lawyers that they will receive reasonable fees directly through certification by the Secretary.”  Second, Congress sought to protect claimants against excessive attorneys’ fees, which in the past had reached one-third to one-half of claimants’ past-due benefits, by imposing the 25 percent cap on fees.  In 1982, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit also looked to this legislative history to hold in Morris v. Social Security Administration that Section 406(b) imposes a cumulative 25 percent cap on attorney’s fees.

More recently, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 6th, 9th and 10th Circuits have focused on the text of section 406(b) to hold that the 25 percent cap only applies to representation before a court.  See Horenstein v. Secretary of Health and Human Services; Clark v. Astrue; and Wrenn v. Astrue, respectively.

The commissioner’s position on this issue has flipflopped over the years. Almost 40 years ago, the commissioner sided with the 5th Circuit in interpreting Section 406(b) to impose an aggregate cap and opposed the grant of certiorari in Dawson.  Then about 15 years later, the commissioner sought and obtained 6th Circuit en banc review of the panel’s decision in Horenstein v. Secretary of Health and Human Services based on arguments that were logically inconsistent with an aggregate 25 percent cap.  Almost 15 years after that, the commissioner argued in briefs before the 9th and 10th Circuits that an aggregate cap honors congressional intent and it would be inappropriate to permit attorneys to potentially collect up to 25 percent of a disability claimant’s past-due benefits at both the agency and court levels.

In this case, the acting commissioner initially supported the 11th Circuit’s rule imposing an aggregate cap.  Then, after requesting four extensions to file a response, the acting commissioner filed a response siding with Culbertson and arguing that the text of Section 406(b) unambiguously applies the 25 percent cap only to attorney’s fees for representation before a court.  The acting commissioner further argues that a 25 percent cap would be inconsistent with other provisions of Section 406(a) and that the absence of an aggregate cap does not mean that the agency and courts should approve fees that in the aggregate are equal to or greater than 50 percent of a claimant’s past-due benefits.

Because the acting commissioner agrees with Culbertson, the Supreme Court appointed Amy Levin Weil, an experienced 11th Circuit appellate litigator, to serve as amicus curiae in support of the 11th Circuit’s decision. Weil argues that the statute itself does not specifically state whether combined attorney’s fees may exceed 25 percent, and that the text of Section 406(a) and Section 406(b), read together, supports the aggregate rule.  She also points to the legislative history on which the 4th and 5th Circuits relied in support of an aggregate 25 percent cap.  She contends that permitting attorney’s fees to exceed 25 percent in the aggregate could lead to attorneys suing their clients to collect fees out of their present or future Social Security benefits contrary to the Social Security Act’s purpose of ensuring beneficiaries a protected source of income.  She also argues that rejecting the 25 percent aggregate rule would lead to absurd results, with fees of up to 75 percent of past-due benefits if a favorable district court opinion is appealed and the applicant is successful in the court of appeals.  She contends that the aggregate cap allows a logical division of agency and court fees from the 25-percent-of-accrued-benefit pool in a manner that recognizes that a portion of the accrued benefits is attributable to the time that the case was pending before the agency while the other portion is attributable to the time the case was pending before the court.

The National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives filed an amicus brief in the case.  The NOSSCR does not address the plain meaning of the statute.  Instead, it contends that Section 406(b) cannot impose an aggregate 25 percent cap on attorney’s fees for representation before a court and the agency because Section 406(a)(1) does not impose a cap on fees before the agency.  NOSSCR further argues that a court has no discretion to impose an aggregate cap.  NOSSCR informs the court that in circuits without an aggregate cap, the prevailing market rate includes a cumulative cap either by contract or in practice.

Weil faces an uphill battle in convincing the Supreme Court to uphold the 11th Circuit’s decision.  The plain-meaning approach to statutory interpretation currently favored by the court supports Culbertson’s position.  Moreover, amici curiae appointed by the Supreme Court typically only win about 25 percent of their cases.  If, however, Weil can convince the court to look beyond the text of the Section 406(b) in isolation, it may, like Chief Judge Geoffrey Crawford of the District of Vermont, find that “it would be strange indeed to believe that Congress would in 1965 denounce 50% contingency fees as excessive and enact a statute to stop them, and then, in 1968, pass a law with the effect of permitting 50% contingency fees.”

Fee Request Denied Because Neither Party Prevailed

January 9, 2018

A recent Delaware Business Court Insider by Tom McParland, “Seven-Figure Fee Request Crumble as Bouchard Calls Cookie Contract Case a Draw” reports that the Delaware Court of Chancery denied multimillion-dollar requests for attorney fees from Mrs. Fields Brand Inc. and Interbake Foods, ruling that neither party had prevailed in a dispute over a contract to sell Mrs. Fields cookies in grocery and convenience stores.

Chancellor Andre G. Bouchard said the baked-goods companies had fought to a draw on the two main issues of a 2016 trial, where Interbake argued that it could exit a five-year licensing agreement to sell Mrs. Fields’ products.

In June, Bouchard ruled in favor of Mrs. Fields, saying that Interbake could not rely on its “material adverse change” argument to escape the deal.  But he also rejected Mrs. Fields’ “astounding” claim for $28.7 million in damages in the case.

Both sides later moved for attorney fees under a provision of the contract that required the “prevailing” party to be reimbursed for costs and expenses of litigation stemming from the licensing agreement.  Interbake asked for $2.6 million, and Mrs. Fields requested $5.3 million for its efforts.

In an 11-page letter opinion, Bouchard said Interbake’s attempts to validate its exit from the agreement spawned a slew of related legal questions, which accounted for the bulk of his 108-page ruling in June.  But he also noted that Mrs. Fields made its losing push for money damages a “central focus” of its litigation strategy, despite a standstill agreement that ensured the licensing agreement would remain in place throughout the case.

“In sum, because each side both won and lost on one of the two equally core issues in this case, I hold that neither Mrs. Fields nor Interbake predominated in the litigation and thus neither is entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees or expenses as the ‘prevailing party’ under [the licensing agreement],” the chancellor wrote.

NJ Justices Hears $2M Fee Dispute in Employment Case

January 3, 2018

A recent New Jersey Law Journal story by Michael Booth, “Justices Hear Dispute Over $2 Million Fee Award in Employment Case” reports that a Princeton financial services company asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to reinstate a more than $2 million attorney fee award for defeating an ex-employee's lawsuit.

Noren was employed by Heartland from April 1998 to June 2005 as a “relationship manager,” a role in which he sold payment processing services.  The contract he signed provided that he and Heartland both “irrevocably waive any right to trial by jury in any suit, action or proceeding under, in connection with or to enforce this agreement,” according to court documents.  Another contract provision awarded fees and costs “[i]n any suit, action or proceeding arising out of or related to this agreement.”

Noren was fired in 2005.  His suit was eventually whittled down to the two claims: breach of contract and the CEPA violation.  His jury trial demand was denied based on the waiver provision and, after 22 days of bench trial, Bergen County Superior Court Judge Susan Steele dismissed both claims.  She awarded Heartland $2.06 million in fees and costs for the defense of both claims, finding them so intertwined that the fees could not be apportioned, the decision stated.

In his appeal, Noren did not dispute the jury waiver’s applicability to the contract claim, or the notion that fees may be awarded based on Heartland’s success in defeating that claim.  But he did dispute the waiver’s applicability to the CEPA claim, and the corresponding fee award based on the statute.

Bank Blocked From Billing for In-House Counsel Work

August 10, 2017

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Lizzy McLellan, “Bank Blocked From Billing for In-House Counsel’s Work,” reports that Enterprise Bank has lost an appellate-level bid to charge counsel fees to a client in foreclosure for work completed by an in-house attorney and paralegal.  That work is not included in the description of legal fees contained in Enterprise's loan documents, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled Aug. 8, affirming a trial court decision.  However, the court did not address whether companies generally may bill clients for the work of in-house lawyers and legal staff.

"After careful consideration, we conclude that the language 'hire or pay someone else' is, at best, ambiguous," Judge Geoffrey Moulton wrote in a 10-page opinion.  "Frazier makes a strong case for the proposition that 'someone else' necessarily means someone not then in Enterprise's employ.  Otherwise, the meaning of the term is difficult to discern."

The Frazier family, a limited partnership, executed a business loan, promissory note and mortgage from Enterprise in 2012, the opinion said.  Within the agreement was a provision regarding attorney fees and expenses, which said Frazier would be responsible for all attorney fees, including those used to "hire or pay someone else" to enforce the mortgage agreement.

In January 2014, Enterprise filed a mortgage foreclosure nearly equal in amount to the principal on the three loans.  The foreclosure complaint included a request for reasonably incurred counsel fees.

Frazier filed preliminary objections, arguing that in-house counsel was not included in the attorney fee provision.  Enterprise provided documentation of the hours billed by an in-house lawyer and paralegal and argued that they were clearly counsel fees.  "Enterprise further asserted that it 'hired' in-house counsel 'to collect the debt and in this case, file a mortgage foreclosure' action," the opinion said.

But the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas sided with Frazier, denying Enterprise's request for counsel fees.  The trial court said any ambiguity in the loan agreements should be construed against Enterprise, since Enterprise drafted the agreements.

The Superior Court agreed on appeal.  However, the court noted, there is a larger issue raised by the dispute on which the court was unable to rule.  "Because we find the contract language ambiguous, and construe it against Enterprise, we need not reach the broader question, briefed by the parties, of whether a lender in Pennsylvania may recover for the work of salaried, in-house counsel," Moulton wrote in a footnote.

Fee Allocation Dispute in MDL Moves to Texas Court

July 24, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Michelle Casady, “RI Atty Must Face Fee Dispute Suit in Texas, Court Affirms,” reports that Texas' Fifth Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court's ruling in a fight between two plaintiffs firms, holding a Rhode Island-based attorney and his firm will have to face litigation in Texas stemming from a fee-sharing agreement with a Texas attorney and his firm.

John E. Deaton and Deaton Law Firm LLC had argued the trial court wrongly refused to dismiss him and his firm from the dispute with Texas attorney Steven M. Johnson and his firm, Steven M. Johnson PC.  Deaton, who served as local counsel for Johnson's firm in multidistrict litigation over alleged injuries from hernia mesh made by C.D. Bard Inc. subsidiary Davol Inc., argued he shouldn't have to litigate the fee dispute in Texas.

Johnson — who negotiated a global settlement for nearly 200 mesh cases the lawyers had worked on together — had argued that when Deaton signed a stipulation of nondisclosure related to the settlement amounts for Johnson's clients, Deaton became bound by the terms of the underlying attorney representation agreements Johnson signed with his clients, which stated disputes would be arbitrated in Texas.  That includes the agreement with Louisiana resident Rickie Patton, he argued.

Deaton, who argued his role in the case is defined by his fee-sharing agreements with Johnson that contain no arbitration clause, has claimed Johnson failed to pay him 5 to 10 percent of fees earned as part of the global settlement Johnson negotiated.

The Fifth Court of Appeals held that all of the Johnson law firm attorney representation agreements, including the one with Patton, contained clauses that disputes would be arbitrated in Texas.  The court rejected Deaton's argument that he wasn't a signatory to Patton's attorney representation agreement.

“We conclude that, by undertaking to represent Patton as 'associate counsel' under the attorney representation agreement and reaffirming his status by signing the stipulation as to nondisclosure, Deaton consented to personal jurisdiction in Texas under the terms of the attorney representation agreement,” the court wrote.

Deaton served as local counsel on 174 hernia mesh cases for Johnson in Rhode Island state court over a period of eight to 10 years, and worked on one case, Patton's, in federal court.  That case was initially filed in the Southern District of Texas but was transferred to Rhode Island District Court for pretrial proceedings.  Deaton hired a Texas expert witness for the Patton case, which would have been tried in Texas had it not been for the global settlement.

In oral arguments before the appellate court in May, an attorney for Deaton said while he had recommended the expert, it was Johnson who hired and paid the witness and Deaton never visited Texas during that time.

But Johnson's attorney told the panel Deaton spent eight years working on a Texas federal case, establishing jurisdiction in Texas for the fee dispute.  Although the Patton case's original pretrial proceedings were in Rhode Island, Deaton's pretrial work was all aimed at a trial in Texas, and he had availed himself of the protections of the state.