Sweetwyne v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER : it is ORDERED and ADJUDGED that, pursuant to the 42 U.S.C. § 406(b), the petition for attorney's fees (doc. # 30 ) be and is hereby GRANTED, and the Commissioner shall pay to the plaintiff's attorney $6,503.50 of the amount previously withheld from the plaintiff's past due benefits. Signed by Honorable Judge Charles S. Coody on 1/5/2017.(kh, )
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:15cv218-CSC
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
On December 21, 2016, the plaintiff filed a motion for attorney’s fees pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 406(b) seeking $6,503.50 in attorney’s fees for 19.25 hours of work in this court which
does not exceed 25 percent of the past due benefits awarded. (Docs. # 30). On November 1,
2016, the plaintiff was awarded past due benefits, and the Social Security Administration
withheld $17,324.50 from his past due benefits for payment of attorney’s fees. (Doc. # 25, Ex.
A; Doc. # 26, Ex. A). Plaintiff’s counsel asserts that he will seek $6,000.00 in attorney’s fees
for work performed at the administrative level. Id. See also 42 U.S.C. § 406(a). Although the
plaintiff’s counsel was previously awarded $3,561.25 in fees under the Equal Access to Justice
Act (“EAJA”), see doc. # 29, counsel represents to the court that the fee award was intercepted
by the Department of Treasury for back child support owed to Chilton County, Alabama
Department of Human Resources. (Doc. # 30 at 4). Consequently, he did not receive any fees
previously awarded to him under the EAJA. Id. The United States does not object to an award
of fees but “leaves to the Court the determination of whether Plaintiff’s counsel has shown that
the fees requested are reasonable.” (Doc. # 32 at 2).
The plaintiff entered into a contingency fee agreement with counsel in which the plaintiff
agreed to payment of attorney’s fees in the amount of 25 percent of any past due benefits
awarded to him. (Doc. # 30, Ex. 1). On April 7, 2015, the plaintiff sought review of the
Commissioner’s adverse decision in this court. (Doc. # 1, Compl.). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(c)(1) and M.D. Ala. LR 73.1, the parties consented to entry of final judgment by the United
States Magistrate Judge. On April 29, 2016, the court remanded this case to the Commissioner
with directions to award benefits to the plaintiff. (Docs. # 24 & 25).
The court must independently determine whether an award of attorney’s fees in the
amount of $6,503.50, which equates to an hourly rate of approximately $337.84 for 19.25 hours
of work performed in this court, is reasonable in this case. In Grisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S.
789, 794 (2002), the Supreme Court examined the question of attorney’s fees in conjunction
with contingency fee agreements in Social Security disability cases. Specifically, the Court held
that “§ 406(b) does not displace contingent-fee agreements as the primary means by which fees
are set for successfully representing Social Security benefits claims in court. Rather § 406(b)
calls for court review of such arrangements as an independent check, to assure that they yield
reasonable results in particular cases.” 535 U.S. at 807. The contingency fee agreement in this
case does not exceed the 25 percent ceiling established by § 406(b). However, it is not sufficient
for the court to simply accept 25 percent of past due benefits as a reasonable attorney fee.
Courts that approach fee determinations by looking first to the contingent-fee
agreement, then testing for reasonableness, have appropriately reduced the
attorney’s recovery based on the character of the representation and the results the
Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 808.
“Within the 25 percent boundary . . . the attorney for the successful claimant must show
that the fee sought is reasonable for the services rendered.” Id., at 807. The burden is on
plaintiff’s counsel to demonstrate the reasonableness of the requested fee. Id. Counsel is
seeking $6,503.50 in attorney’s fees for 19.25 hours of work over a one year period. The court
nonetheless concludes that the requested fee is reasonable in this case. The United States does
not object to the award, and the court’s judgment about reasonableness is informed by
Gisbrecht’s conclusion that Congress did not mean to “outlaw” lawful contingent fee
agreements. Counsel is experienced in representing Social Security claimants, and he has
represented over 80 Social Security claimants in this court since 2005. (Doc. # 30 at 3). He
regularly practices in federal court. Id. He secured a fully favorable decision for the plaintiff.
Consequently, the court concludes that payment in the amount of $6,503.50 is reasonable under
the circumstances of this case.
Accordingly, it is
ORDERED and ADJUDGED that, pursuant to the 42 U.S.C. § 406(b), the petition for
attorney’s fees (doc. # 30) be and is hereby GRANTED, and the Commissioner shall pay to the
plaintiff’s attorney $6,503.50 of the amount previously withheld from the plaintiff’s past due
Done this 5th day of January, 2017.
/s/Charles S. Coody
CHARLES S. COODY
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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