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Morales v. Colvin

United States District Court, Central District of California

January 22, 2015

MARY DE JESUS MORALES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER RE: "COUNSEL'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES PURSUANT TO 42 U.S.C. § 406(B)"

CHARLES F. EICK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

On December 9, 2014, counsel for Plaintiff filed "Counsel's Motion for Attorney Fees Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 4 06(b)" ("the Motion"). On December 16, 2014, Defendant filed "Defendant's Non-Opposition Response, etc." Counsel for Plaintiff seeks attorney fees in the amount of $15, 000.

BACKGROUND

The Court previously remanded this matter to the Commissioner for further administrative action pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. section 405(g). The Commissioner subsequently awarded benefits to Plaintiff totaling $69, 584. From that award, the Administration has withheld 25 percent or $17, 396, for a possible award of attorney fees under 42 U.S.C. section 4 06. Following the award of benefits, and in accordance with stipulations filed by the parties, the Court entered Judgment for Plaintiff and awarded $7, 000 in attorney fees and expenses under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA").

Throughout this matter, Plaintiff's counsel has represented Plaintiff under a contingent fee agreement providing for fees in the amount of twenty-five percent of past-due benefits. Twenty-five percent of the past due benefits awarded is $17, 396 - a fee larger than the $15, 000 counsel now is seeking under section 406(b).

APPLICABLE LAW

Section 406(b)(1) of Title 42 provides:

Whenever a court renders a judgment favorable to a claimant . . . who was represented before the court by an attorney, the court 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 ... In case of any such judgment, no other fee may be payable . . . for such representation except as provided in this paragraph. 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) (1) (A) .
According to the United States Supreme Court, section 406(b) does not displace contingent-fee agreements as the primary-means by which fees are set for successfully representing Social Security benefits claimants in court. Rather, § 406(b) calls for court review of such arrangements as an independent check, to assure that they yield reasonable results in particular cases. Congress has provided one boundary line: Agreements are unenforceable to the extent that they provide for fees exceeding 25 percent of the past-due benefits. Within this 25 percent boundary . . . the attorney for the successful claimant must show that the fee sought is reasonable for the services rendered. Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 807 (2002) (citations omitted) ("Gisbrecht").

The hours spent by counsel representing the claimant and counsel's "normal hourly billing charge for noncontingent-fee cases" may aid "the court's assessment of the reasonableness of the fee yielded by the fee agreement." Id. at 808. The Court appropriately may reduce counsel's recovery

based on the character of the representation and the results the representative achieved. If the attorney is responsible for delay, for example, a reduction is in order so that the attorney will not profit from the accumulation of benefits during the pendency of the case in court. If the benefits are large in comparison to the amount of time counsel spent on the case, a downward adjustment is similarly in order. Id. (citations omitted).

DISCUSSION

The fee sought does not exceed the agreed-upon twenty-five percent of past-due benefits. Neither "the character of the representation" nor "the results the representative achieved" suggest the unreasonableness of the fee sought. Plaintiff's counsel was not responsible for any significant delay in securing Plaintiff's benefits. Because the present case is legally indistinguishable from Crawford v. Astrue, 586 F.3d 1142 (9th Cir. 2009), this Court is unable to find that a comparison of the benefits secured and the time Plaintiff's counsel spent on the matter suggest the unreasonableness of the fee sought. Therefore, the Court concludes that "the fee sought is reasonable for the services rendered, " within the meaning of Gisbrecht. Accordingly, the Court allows section 406(b) fees in the gross amount of $15, 000.

The only remaining issue concerns the extent to which Plaintiff's counsel must now reimburse Plaintiff for the EAJA fee previously awarded. Plaintiff's counsel proposes to reimburse Plaintiff in the amount of $4, 000. Defendant submits that counsel for Plaintiff must now reimburse Plaintiff in the full amount of $7, 000. Defendant states that the $4, 000 reimbursement number proposed by Plaintiff's ...


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