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Heintz v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

February 7, 2017




         Plaintiff Bradley Scott Heintz brought this suit to contest a denial of disability benefits by Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). (DE 1). On June 5, 2015, this Court entered an Opinion and Order that reversed the Commissioner's denial of benefits and remanded the case for further proceedings. (DE 29).

         Heintz's attorney, Joseph Sellers, now moves pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) for the Court's authorization of attorney fees in the amount of $7, 982 for his firm's representation of Heintz in federal court. (DE 37). The Commissioner does not oppose Sellers's fee request. (DE 37 ¶ 10). For the following reasons, Sellers's motion for attorney fees will be GRANTED, subject to the adjustment set forth herein.

         A. Factual and Procedural Background

         On July 16, 2014, Sellers and his co-counsel entered into a contingent fee agreement with Heintz for their representation of him in federal court, in which Heintz agreed to pay them 25% of any past-due benefits awarded to him.[1] (DE 37-1).

         On June 25, 2014, Heintz filed the instant action with this Court, appealing the Commissioner's denial of his application for disability benefits. (DE 1). On June 5, 2015, Heintz received a favorable judgment from this Court, and the case was remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. (DE 29).

         On August 26, 2015, Heintz filed a request for attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412, seeking payment for the 38.75 hours of attorney time (plus 3.75 hours of paralegal time) spent advocating his claim in federal court. (DE 31-DE 34). Pursuant to a stipulation by the parties, the Court granted Heintz an EAJA fee award of $7, 200. (DE 35).

         On March 20, 2016, the Commissioner sent a notice of award to Heintz, informing that he was entitled to monthly disability benefits beginning May 2013 and past-due benefits of $37, 289, of which $9, 322.25 was withheld toward payment of attorney fees. (DE 37-2).

         On August 22, 2016, and again on January 3, 2017, Sellers received a notice from the Commissioner that a balance of $7, 982 was being withheld from Heintz's past-due benefits for payment of attorney fees for federal court and inquiring whether Sellers had petitioned the Court for attorney fees. (DE 37-3 at 2-3). On January 23, 2017, Sellers filed the instant unopposed motion seeking the Court's approval of a payment of $7, 982 for attorney fees before this Court, requesting that $7, 200 be released to Heintz to offset the previous EAJA fee award and the remaining $782 be paid to Sellers's firm. (DE 37 ¶ 7).

         B. Legal Standard

         Fees for representing social security claimants, both administratively and in federal court, are governed by 42 U.S.C. § 406. Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 793, 794. Section 406(a) controls fees for representation in administrative proceedings, and § 406(b) controls attorney fees for representation in court. Id. Unlike fees obtained under the EAJA, [2] the fees awarded under § 406 are charged against the claimant, not the government. Id. at 796.

         Under § 406(a), an attorney who has represented a claimant may file a fee petition or fee agreement with the Commissioner to receive fees for his or her representation at the administrative level. 42 U.S.C. § 406(a); Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 794-95; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1725(a), 416.1525(a). There are, however, limits on the amount that the Commissioner can award pursuant to § 406(a). Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 794-95.

         Under § 406(b), an attorney who has successfully represented a claimant in federal court may receive “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 . . . .”[3] 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)(A); Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 795. Furthermore, § 406(b) has been harmonized with the EAJA; although fee awards may be made under both the EAJA and § 406(b), a claimant's attorney must refund to the claimant the amount of the smaller fee. Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 796 (explaining that “an EAJA award offsets an award under Section 406(b)”).

         Unlike the award by the Commissioner under § 406(a), the court is required under § 406(b) to review for reasonableness the attorney fees yielded by contingent fee ...

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