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Paula K. v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

December 3, 2019

PAULA K., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, [2] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge.

         In this social security matter, plaintiff Paula K. moves for attorneys' fees in the amount of $22, 894.50 under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 406(b).[3] For the reasons stated below, the court will grant Paula's motion in part and award $1, 515.00 in attorneys' fees to Michael L. Ritchie, Esquire, to be paid from Paula's July 20, 2018 award of past-due disability benefits.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In December 2011, Paula filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income with the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA subsequently denied her claims. On April 5, 2013, Paula retained Michael L. Ritchie, Esquire, to represent her in her disability case.

         Upon Paula's request, a hearing was held on May 14, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marc Mates to challenge the SSA's decision. The ALJ denied Paula's claims on June 26, 2014. On July 15, 2014, Paula requested a review of the ALJ's decision. The Appeals Council denied the request on November 6, 2015.

         Paula sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Dkt. No. 2.) On March 8, 2017, United States Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe issued a Report and Recommendation (R&R) finding that substantial evidence did not support the final decision and recommending that the court remand the case for further administrative proceedings. (Dkt. No. 20.) On March 23, 2017, this court entered an order and final judgment adopting the R&R in full. (Dkt. No. 21.)

         On April 6, 2017, Paula moved for an award of attorneys' fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). Pursuant to the parties' stipulation filed April 18, 2017, (Dkt. No. 23) the court entered an order awarding Paula attorneys' fees under the EAJA in the amount of $4, 425.00 to be sent to the business address of Michael L. Ritchie, Esquire. (Dkt. No. 24.)

         On remand from the court pursuant to the R&R, the ALJ granted Paula a favorable decision, finding her disabled as of July 16, 2011, and entitled to disability benefits. In its Notice of Award dated July 20, 2018, the SSA awarded Paula a total of $91, 578.00 in past-due benefits for January 2012 through August 2018. (Dkt. No. 25-1.)

         Paula now requests that this court award attorneys' fees in the amount of $22, 894.50, or 25% of the past-due benefits award pursuant to § 406(b) of the Social Security Act.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The fee prescriptions set out in 42 U.S.C. §§ 406(a) and (b) “establish the exclusive regime for obtaining fees for successful representation” of Social Security benefits claimants. Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 796. Section 406 “deals with the administrative and judicial review stages discretely: § 406(a) governs fees for representation in administrative proceedings; § 406(b) controls fees for representation in court.” Mudd v. Barnhart, 418 F.3d 424, 427 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 794). Under § 406(b), the court may award a successful claimant “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” from the SSA. 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)(A). Paula seeks the full 25% permitted by the statute, which amounts to $22, 894.50 of her $91, 578.00 past-due benefits award.

         Gisbrecht sets the legal framework for awarding attorney's fees under § 406(b). The district court must “look[] first to the contingent-fee agreement” and then “independently assess the reasonableness of its terms.” 535 U.S. at 808.

         A. Paula's Contingency Fee Agreement

         Paula and Mr. Ritchie signed a written Social Security Fee Agreement (Agreement) on April 5, 2013. (Dkt. No. 29-1.) The Agreement provides for the lesser of 25% of all past-due benefits or $6, 000 for successful representation at “any administrative level through the first . . . ALJ decision” after the date of the Agreement. (Id. ¶ 2.) The Agreement also provides for “25% of all back benefits awarded” for successful representation before the Appeals Council following an ALJ's denial. (Id. ¶ 3.) The Agreement, however, fails to provide for attorneys' fees for representation in court: “This fee agreement does not include representation on appeal to the United States District Court. If I receive an unfavorable decision from the Social Security Administration and the attorneys agree to undertake an appeal to the United States District Court, a new fee agreement must be negotiated.”[4](Id. ΒΆ 5.) Because the ...


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