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Robbins v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 28, 2018

MICHAEL ROBBINS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Michael Robbins brought this suit to contest a denial of disability benefits by Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). (DE 1). On July 14, 2017, pursuant to a joint motion to remand by the parties, this Court entered an Order that reversed the Commissioner's denial of benefits and remanded the case for further proceedings. (DE 23; DE 24).

         On October 11, 2018, Robbins's attorney, Adriana de la Torre, moved pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) for the Court's authorization of attorney fees in the amount of $20, 382.75 for her representation of Robbins in federal court. (DE 29). The Commissioner filed a response indicating that the parties have conferred regarding the motion and agreed to reduce the requested fee to $14, 382.75, in light of the Commissioner's payment of $6, 000 to the non-attorney representative at the administrative level. (DE 34).

         For the following reasons, de la Torre's motion for attorney fees will be GRANTED in the amount of $14, 382.75, subject to an offset explained herein.

         A. Factual and Procedural Background

         On September 2, 2016, de la Torre entered into a Social Security Disability Application Fee Agreement with Robbins for her representation of Robbins in federal court. (DE 29-2). The agreement provided that de la Torre was “entitled to a fee equal to the lesser of: (1) twenty-five percent (25%) of the past-due benefits owed to [Robbins] and [his] dependents, if applicable; or (2) the maximum amount set by the [Commissioner] pursuant to Section 26 of the Social Security Act . . . .”[1] (DE 29-2).

         On September 19, 2016, Robbins filed the instant action with this Court, appealing the Commissioner's denial of his application for disability benefits. (DE 1). On July 13, 2017, the Commissioner filed an agreed motion to reverse and remand Robbins's case to the Commissioner. (DE 23). The following day, the Court granted the Commissioner's motion, and the case was remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. (DE 24; DE 25).

         On August 8, 2017, Robbins and the Commissioner filed a joint motion for attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2412, seeking payment for the hours that de la Torre spent advocating Robbins's claim in federal court. (DE 26). Pursuant to the parties' stipulation, the Court granted Robbins an EAJA fee award of $6, 555. (DE 27).

         On or about June 12, 2018, the Commissioner issued Robbins a notice of award, informing him that he was entitled to disability benefits as of December 2013. (DE 29-1). The notice of award further stated that the Commissioner was withholding $20, 382.75, which was 25% of Robbins's past-due benefits, to pay Robbins's attorney. (DE 29-1).

         About four months later, on October 11, 2018, de la Torre filed the instant motion, seeking fees under § 406(b) in the amount of $20, 382.75. (DE 29; DE 30). On November 6, 2018, the Commissioner filed a response, indicating that the parties had since agreed to reduce de la Torre's requested fee to $14, 382.75 in light of the Commissioner's payment of $6, 000 to the non-attorney representative at the administrative level. (DE 34).

         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 793-94. 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 ...


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