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Thomas v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

May 22, 2018

ROBERT D. THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          BERT W. MILLING, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This action is before the Court on the Motion for Attorney Fees Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) (Doc. 30) filed by William T. Coplin, Jr., Esq., counsel for Plaintiff Robert D. Thomas (“Plaintiff”). Upon consideration, the Court finds that the § 406(b) motion is due to be GRANTED.[1]

I. Background

         On April 20, 2015, Plaintiff, at all times represented by Coplin, commenced this action for judicial review of an unfavorable final decision of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). (Doc. 1). In accordance with the Court's scheduling order (Doc. 5), the Commissioner filed her answer to the complaint (Doc. 10) and the record of the administrative proceedings (Doc. 11), and Plaintiff filed his brief identifying errors in the Commissioner's final decision (Docs. 12, 13). In response to Plaintiff's brief, the Commissioner filed her brief in support of the final decision (Doc. 18). The undersigned, by Memorandum Opinion and Order, reversed the decision of the Commissioner and remanded this action for further proceedings (Doc. 24) and Judgment was entered accordingly on February 17, 2016. (Doc. 25).

         Plaintiff subsequently filed a motion for attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)[2] (Doc. 26), and the Commissioner filed a Response objecting to the request (Doc. 27). After consideration, the Court denied the Motion, finding that the Commissioner's position in this action was substantially justified. (Docs. 28, 29).

         Following remand to the Social Security Administration (SSA), an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a favorable decision for the Plaintiff on March 2, 2018. (Doc. 30-2). A notice of award of past-due benefits was issued May 16, 2018, which also advised that $23, 912.75, representing 25% of the total past due benefits, was being withheld to pay an approved representative's fee. (Doc. 30-3). Coplin filed the present § 406(b) motion on May 21, 2018, requesting that the Court award him a fee in the amount of $17, 912.75. (Doc. 30).

         II. Analysis

         [U]nder 42 U.S.C. § 406(b), a court entering judgment in favor of a Social Security benefits claimant who was represented by an attorney “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). Assuming that the requested fee is within the 25 percent limit, the court must then determine whether “the fee sought is reasonable for the services rendered.” Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 807, 122 S.Ct. 1817, 1828, 152 L.Ed.2d 996 (2002). For example, courts may reduce the requested fee if the representation has been substandard, if the attorney has been responsible for delay, or if the benefits are large in comparison to the amount of time the attorney spent on the case. Id. at 808, 122 S.Ct. at 1828. A § 406(b) fee is paid by the claimant out of the past-due benefits awarded. 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)(A).

         Jackson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 601 F.3d 1268, 1271 (11th Cir. 2010).[3] “42 U.S.C. § 406(b) authorizes an award of attorney's fees where[, as here, ] the district court remands the case to the Commissioner of Social Security for further proceedings, and the Commissioner on remand awards the claimant past-due benefits.” Bergen v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 454 F.3d 1273, 1277 (11th Cir. 2006) (per curiam).

         a. Timeliness

         “Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(2) applies to a § 406(b) attorney's fee claim.” Id. Rule 54(d)(2)(B)(i) provides that, “[u]nless a statute or a court order provides otherwise, [a] motion [for attorney's fees] must be filed no later than 14 days after the entry of judgment.” Because Coplin's § 406(b) motion was filed within 14 days of the date of the Plaintiff's notice of award, the motion is timely.

         b. Reasonableness

In Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, the Supreme Court considered 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) and clarified its impact on the district court's role in awarding a reasonable fee following a favorable claim for Social Security benefits. See535 U.S. 789, 807, 122 S.Ct. 1817, 1828, 152 L.Ed.2d 996 (2002). Although § 406(b)(1)(A) gives district courts the power to “determine and allow as part of its judgment a reasonable fee” following a favorable claim for Social Security benefits, 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)(A), it does not empower them to ignore the fee agreements entered into by parties when determining what a reasonable fee would be, see Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 807, 122 S.Ct. at 1828 (concluding that “ § 406(b) does not displace contingent-fee agreements as the primary means by which fees are set”). Instead, courts must look to the ...

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