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Madison v. Berryhill

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

September 13, 2018

SHIRLEY MADISON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KATHERINE P. NELSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This action is before the Court on the motion for fees under 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) (Doc. 24) filed by William T. Coplin, Jr., Esq., counsel of record for Plaintiff Shirley Madison.[2] The Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) has filed a response to the motion stating that the Commissioner “neither supports nor opposes Plaintiff's counsel's motion” but is providing an “informational” response “to assist the Court.” (See Doc. 26).[3] Upon consideration, the Court finds that Coplin's § 406(b) motion (Doc. 24) is due to be GRANTED.[4]

         I. Background

         Madison, at all times represented by Coplin, commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of an unfavorable final decision of the Commissioner denying her applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq., and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq. In accordance with the Court's scheduling order (Doc. 5), the Commissioner filed her answer (Doc. 11) to the complaint and the record of the administrative proceedings (Doc. 12), and Madison filed her fact sheet and brief identifying alleged errors in the Commissioner's final decision (Docs. 13, 14).

         Rather than file a brief responding to Madison's claims of error, the Commissioner filed an unopposed motion to remand Madison's case under sentence four of § 405(g) (applicable to SSI claims under § 1383(c)(3)) for further administrative proceedings (Doc. 16), which the Court granted by order and judgment entered September 29, 2016 (Docs. 18, 19). Madison subsequently filed a motion for attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)[5] (Doc. 20), which the Court granted, awarding $1, 754.88 in EAJA fees. (See Doc. 23).

         Following remand to the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), on April 5, 2018, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision in favor of Madison on her applications for benefits. (See Doc. 24-2). A notice of award of benefits was issued May 14, 2018, noting, inter alia, that Madison was entitled to $50, 988.00 in past-due benefits, and that $12, 747.00 of that amount was being withheld to pay Madison's representative. (See Doc. 24-3). Coplin filed the present § 406(b) motion on August 10, 2018.

         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).[6] “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

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(2), which “applies to a § 406(b) attorney's fee claim[, ]” id., 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(d)(2). In ordering remand in this action, the Court granted “Madison's attorney an extension of time in which to file a petition for authorization of attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) until thirty days after receipt of a notice of award of benefits from the Social Security Administration.” (Doc. 18 at 3).

         While the notice of award itself is dated May 14, 2018 (see Doc. 24-3 at 2), a fax coversheet from the SSA that Coplin has included with the notice indicates that Coplin did not receive the notice until the SSA faxed it to him on August 10, 2018 (see Id. at 1). Coplin's § 406(b) motion was filed the same day, and the Commissioner has not argued that the motion is due to be denied as untimely. Accordingly, the Court finds that Coplin's § 406(b) 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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