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Culbertson v. Berryhill

United States Supreme Court

January 8, 2019

RICHARD ALLEN CULBERTSON, PETITIONER
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

          Argued November 7, 2018

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

         The 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. §406(b)(1)(A).

         Petitioner 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).

         Held:

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.

          OPINION

          THOMAS, JUSTICE

         Federal 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.

         I

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