November 7, 2018
WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR
THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
Social Security Act regulates the fees that attorneys may
charge claimants seeking Title II benefits for representation
both before the Social Security Administration and in federal
court. For representation in administrative proceedings, the
Act provides two ways to determine fees. If a fee agreement
exists, fees are capped at the lesser of 25% of past-due
benefits or a set dollar amount-currently $6, 000. 42 U.S.C.
§406(a)(2)(A). Absent an agreement, the agency may set
any "reasonable" fee. §406(a)(1). In either
case, the agency is required to withhold up to 25% of
past-due benefits for direct payment of any fee.
§406(a)(4). For representation in court proceedings,
fees are capped at 25% of past-due benefits, and the agency
has authority to withhold such benefits to pay these fees.
Culbertson represented Katrina Wood in Social Security
disability benefit proceedings before the agency and in
District Court. The agency ultimately awarded Wood past-due
benefits, withheld 25% of those benefits to pay any
attorney's fees, and awarded Culbertson fees under
§406(a) for representation before the agency. Culbertson
then moved for a separate fee award under §406(b) for
the court proceedings, requesting a full 25% of past-due
benefits. The District Court granted the request, but only in
part, because Culbertson did not subtract the amount he had
already received under §406(a) for his agency-level
representation. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that
the 25% limit under §406(b) applies to the total fees
awarded under both §§406(a) and (b).
Section 406(b)(1)(A)'s 25% cap applies only to fees for
court representation and not to the aggregate fees awarded
under §§406(a) and (b). Pp. 5-9.
(a) Section 406(b) provides that a court rendering a
favorable judgment to a claimant "represented before the
court by an attorney" may award "a reasonable fee
for such representation, not in excess of 25 percent" of
past-due benefits. Here, the adjective "such,"
which means "[o]f the kind or degree already described
or implied," refers to the only form of representation
"already described" in §406(b)-i.e.,
"represent[ation] before the court." Thus, the 25%
cap applies only to fees for representation before the court,
not the agency.
Subsections (a) and (b) address different stages of the
representation and use different methods for calculating
fees. Given this statutory structure, applying
§406(b)'s 25% cap on court-stage fees to
§406(a) agency-stage fees, or the aggregate of
§§406(a) and (b) fees, would make little sense. For
example, such a reading would subject §406(a)(1)'s
reasonableness limitation to §406(b)'s 25% cap-a
limitation not included in the relevant provision of the
statute. Had Congress wanted agency-stage fees to be capped
at 25%, it presumably would have said so directly in
subsection (a). Pp. 5-7.
(b) The fact that the agency presently withholds a single
pool of 25% of past-due benefits for direct payment of agency
and court fees does not support an aggregate reading. The
statutory text provides for two pools of money for direct
payment of fees. See §§406(a)(4), (b)(1)(A). The
agency's choice to withhold only one pool of 25% of
past-due benefits does not alter this text. More
fundamentally, the amount of past-due benefits that the
agency can withhold for direct payment does not delimit the
amount of fees that can be approved for representation before
the agency or the court. Pp. 7-9.
861 F.3d 1197, reversed and remanded.
law regulates the fees that attorneys may charge Social
Security claimants for representation before the Social
Security Administration and a reviewing court. See 42 U.S.C.
§§406(a)-(b). The question in this case is whether
the statutory scheme limits the aggregate amount of fees for
both stages of representation to 25% of the claimant's
past-due benefits. Because §406(b) by its terms imposes
a 25% cap on fees only for representation before a court, and
§406(a) has separate caps on fees for representation
before the agency, we hold that the statute does not impose a
25% cap on aggregate fees.