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Moody v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 10, 2019

YOLANDA EVETTE MOODY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          ORDER RE: PLAINTIFF'S COUNSEL'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEY'S FEES RE: DKT. NO. 22

          JACQUELINE SCOTT CORLEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff's counsel, Katherine Siegfried moves for attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) for representing Plaintiff in her successful appeal of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“Commissioner's”) denial of social security disability benefits. (Dkt. No. 22.)[1] The Commissioner filed a response taking no position on Ms. Siegfried's motion. (Dkt. No. 23.) After careful consideration of the parties' briefing, the Court concludes that oral argument is unnecessary, see N.D. Cal. Civ. L.R. 7-1(b), and GRANTS Ms. Siegfried's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         The instant motion stems from Plaintiff's appeal of the Commissioner's denial of social security disability benefits for a combination of impairments including: complex partial epilepsy, lupus anticoagulant syndrome with history of pulmonary embolisms (PE) and deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on clot prophylaxis with Coumadin, uterine fibroids status post hysterectomy, hypertension, vertigo, migraines, asthma, and obstructive sleep apnea. (See Dkt. No. 18 at 1.) On July 28, 2017, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, denied Defendant's cross motion for summary judgment, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court's order. (Id. at 25-26.) On August 18, 2017, pursuant to the parties' stipulation, the Court awarded $7, 000.00 in attorneys' fees to Plaintiff's counsel pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1920, 2412(d). (Dkt. No. 21.)

         The Commissioner awarded benefits on remand and Plaintiff received a Notice of Award in December 2018, indicating an award of both past due and ongoing benefits. (See Dkt. Nos. 22-2 at ¶¶ 5-6 & 24-1 at 4 (noting “[t]he past due benefit period as per the Administrative Law Judge decision dated August 1, 2018 is September 2014 through November 2018”).) Plaintiff appealed that award, however, “because it did not appear correct.” (Dkt. No. 22-2 at ¶ 6; see also Dkt. No. 24-1 at 4 (noting that “[t]he total past due benefits for this period are $9, 686.00”).) The Commissioner issued a Notice of Change in Benefits on February 20, 2019 (“February Notice”), listing monthly benefit amounts that total $36, 981.90 in past-due benefits. (Dkt. No. 22-5 at 1; see also Dkt. No. 23-1 at 1-2 (calculating total past-due benefits based on amounts listed in Dkt. No. 22-5).)

         On April 15, 2019, the Commissioner issued a Notice of Award (“April Notice”) regarding “monthly child's benefits from Social Security beginning September 2014.” (Dkt. No. 22-6 at 1.) The April Notice lists monthly benefit amounts that total $8, 8160.80 in past-due benefits. (See id.; see also Dkt. No. 23-1 at 1-2 (calculating total past-due benefits based on amounts listed in Dkt. No. 22-6).) Further, the April Notice states that Plaintiff's counsel “may ask the court to approve a fee no larger than 25 percent of past due benefits” and “for this reason, [the Commissioner is] withholding $2, 200.50” of past-due child's benefits. (Dkt. No. 22-6 at 1.)

         Pursuant to Plaintiff and Ms. Siegfried's contingent-fee agreement for this case, Ms. Siegfried may seek fees up to 25 percent of any past-due benefits awarded to Plaintiff. (Dkt. No. 22-1.) Ms. Siegfried requests fees in the amount of $11, 449.68, representing 25 percent of the total past-due benefits ($45, 798.70) reflected in the February Notice and the April Notice.[2] (See Dkt. No. 24 at 1 (amending the requested amount because Ms. Siegfried originally “miscalculated the amount” of past-due benefits paid); see also Dkt. No. 23-1 at 2 (calculating total past-due benefits in the amount of $45, 798.70).)

         Ms. Siegfried attests that on May 7, 2019, she electronically served Plaintiff with a copy of the instant motion “and all supporting papers, ” and “mailed a copy to [Plaintiff's] home address.” (Dkt. No. 22-2 at ¶ 11.) Plaintiff has not filed a response or otherwise contacted the Court regarding the instant motion. As previously discussed, the Commissioner filed a response providing an analysis of the fee request but “tak[ing] no position on the reasonableness of the request.” (Dkt. No. 23 at 4.)

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Section 406(b), “[w]henever a court renders a judgment favorable to a [social security] claimant under this subchapter who was represented before the court by an attorney, the court may determine and allow as part of its judgment a reasonable fee” to the claimant's attorney; such a fee can be no more than 25 percent of the total past-due benefits awarded to the claimant. 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)(A). A district court may award such a fee even if the court's judgment did not immediately result in an award of past-due benefits; thus, where the court reversed the Administrative Law Judges determination and remanded for further consideration, the court may calculate the 25 percent fee based upon any past-due benefits awarded on remand. See Crawford v. Astrue, 586 F.3d 1142 (9th Cir. 2009).

         Section 406(b) “does not displace contingent-fee agreements as the primary means by which fees are set for successfully representing Social Security benefits claims in court.” Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 807 (2002). Instead, when evaluating a request for fees under § 406(b), a court must “look[ ] first to the contingent-fee agreement, then test[ ] it for reasonableness.” Id. at 808. The fee applicant has the burden of demonstrating that “the fee sought is reasonable for the services rendered, ” and in no case can an attorney recover fees that exceed the 25 percent limit set under § 406(b). Id. at 807.

         In determining the reasonableness of fees requested pursuant to 406(b), courts must analyze the character of representation and the results achieved. Id. at 808. Relevant to that inquiry is consideration of: whether counsel provided substandard representation; any dilatory conduct by counsel to accumulate additional fees; whether the benefits achieved are disproportional to the time spent on the case; and the risk counsel assumed by excepting the case. See Crawford, 586 F.3d at 1151-52.

         A court must offset an award of § 406(b) attorneys' fees by any award of fees granted under the EAJA. Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 796; see also Parrish v. Comm'r of ...


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