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William B. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

November 6, 2019

WILLIAM B., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PATRICIA SULLIVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Before the Court is plaintiff's unopposed Motion for Attorney Fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b). See Pl.'s Mot. Att'y Fees (“Pl.'s Mot.”) (Docket No. 24). Although plaintiff is the claimant in this social security disability appeal, the real party interest to this motion is his attorney, Merrill Schneider (“counsel”). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders and judgment in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See (Docket No. 4). The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) does not oppose the motion, but plays a role “resembling that of a trustee for [plaintiff].” Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 798 n.6 (2002). Having reviewed the file and the fees sought, the Court concludes counsel is entitled to fees under § 406(b) and the motion is GRANTED.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 9, 2016, plaintiff sought review of the Commissioner's decision denying his disability application and filed a Complaint in this Court. (Docket No. 1). On March 19, 2017, after briefing from the parties, the Court issued an Opinion and Order (“O&O”) reversing the Commissioner's decision and entered judgment remanding the appeal for further administrative proceedings. (Docket Nos. 16-20).

         On November 28, 2017, the Court granted a Stipulated Application for Attorney Fees Pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2412 (“EAJA”), in the amount of $6, 161.89 (Docket No. 23).

         On August 3, 2019, the Commissioner issued a Notice of Award entitling plaintiff to retroactive benefits in the amount of $109, 317. (Docket 24-2); see also Pl.'s Mot. 4 (calculating total sum of retroactive benefits due to plaintiff by year). On September 20, 2019, plaintiff filed the instant Motion for Approval of Attorney Fees Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) in the amount of $21, 329.25. Pl.'s Mot. 1.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         After entering a judgment in favor of a Social Security claimant represented by counsel, a 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)(A). District courts approach § 406(b) fee determinations “‘by looking first to the contingent-fee agreement, then testing it for reasonableness.'” Crawford v. Astrue, 586 F.3d 1142, 1149 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 808). In testing the reasonableness of a fee, courts consider “the character of the representation and the results the representative achieved.” Crawford, 586 F.3d at 1149 (quoting Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 808). A reduction in fees is appropriate where counsel has engaged in “substandard performance, delay, or benefits that are not in proportion to the time spent on the case.” Id. (citing Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 808). When a court approves both an EAJA fee award and a § 406(b) fee payment, the claimant's attorney must refund to the claimant the lesser of the two payments. Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 796.

         DISCUSSION

         Counsel requests a fee of $21, 329.25. The Court first examines the fee agreement to ensure its compliance with the relevant statutory provision and then surveys the character of the representation and the results achieved.

         I. Fee Agreement

         Under Gisbrecht, the Court must first examine the contingent fee agreement to ensure its compliance with the statutory 25 percent cap mandated by Congress. 535 U.S. at 808. Plaintiff and his attorney executed a contingent-fee agreement in which they agreed that, should counsel succeed in obtaining payment of past-due benefits, plaintiff would pay 25 percent of the retroactive benefits awarded as a fee. (Docket No. 24-1). The terms of this agreement are thus within the statute's limits.

         Next, the Court must confirm that the fee requested does not exceed the statute's 25 percent ceiling. This determination requires evidence of the retroactive benefits to be paid to plaintiff. Counsel provided a document from the Commissioner entitled “Notice of Award, ” which details the retroactive benefits due to plaintiff. (Docket No. 24-2). Counsel seeks $21, 329.25, which is approximately 19.51 percent of the amount of retroactive benefits. Therefore, counsel's request falls well below the statutory ceiling.

         II. ...


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