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Sead Buljina v. Michael J. Astrue

December 8, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge


Document No.: 23


This matter comes before the court on a petition for an award of attorney's fees. The petitioner is an attorney who successfully prosecuted his client's claim for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. The attorney has now filed a petition under 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) for an award of $21,609.25 in attorney's fees -- a sum that was agreed upon pursuant to a contingency fee agreement. Because the petitioner has shown that the award sought is reasonable, the court grants his petition.


The plaintiff first applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act in October 2005. Commissioner's Response to Pet. ("Response") at 1. The plaintiff was not represented by counsel during the initial administrative phase of this case. Id. at 4; Reply at 9. In December 2007, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") then determined that the plaintiff was not entitled to disability benefits. Response at 4. The plaintiff's request for review was denied at the appellate level of the administrative agency, thus rendering the ALJ's decision final. Id.

The plaintiff then hired an attorney on a contingency basis, under which the plaintiff agreed to pay 25% of the plaintiff's past-due benefits in the event that his claim was successful.*fn1

Id., Ex. B. In 2008, the plaintiff filed suit in this court. See generally Compl. Following the filing of the plaintiff's opening brief, the defendant filed a consent motion for voluntary remand. Pet. at 1. This court granted the motion and remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. The plaintiff prevailed on remand; an ALJ issued a decision awarding the plaintiff a substantial amount of benefits in February 2011. Id. In relevant part, the ALJ awarded the plaintiff $86,437.00 in past-due benefits. Id.

In September 2011, the plaintiff's attorney filed a petition for attorney's fees under section 206(b)(1) of the Social Security Act, which is codified at 42 U.S.C. § 406(b).*fn2 See generally Pet. With that petition ripe for review, the court now turns to the relevant legal standards and the parties' arguments.


A. Legal Standard for an Award of Attorney's Fees Under 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)

Section 406(b) allows the attorney of a successful social security claimant to petition for an award of reasonable attorney's fees. 42 U.S.C. § 406(b)(1)(A). The award is payable out of the claimant's award of past-due benefits, but the award may not exceed a sum greater than 25% of those benefits. Id. Section 406(b) requires courts to undertake a "review of such arrangements as an independent check, to assure that they yield reasonable results in particular cases." Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 807 (2002). As discussed below, the determination of which factors indicate a "reasonable" award in any particular case requires further analysis.

In Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, the Supreme Court set forth the framework that governs judicial review of petitions for attorney's fees under § 406(b). See generally id. By way of background, Gisbrecht observed that many civil rights statutes include a "fee-shifting" provision, which requires a losing defendant to pay for the winner's attorney's fees and costs. See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (allowing reasonable attorney's fees in cases brought under various Reconstruction-era civil rights statutes); 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g)(2)(A) (allowing courts to award attorney's fees and costs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). These fee-shifting provisions are intended to encourage private individuals and their attorneys to bring lawbreakers to account and thus secure broad compliance with this nation's civil rights laws. See Newman v. Piggie Park Enters., Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 401 (1968). The typical method of calculating an award of attorney's fees under these statutes is known as the "lodestar" method, under which a court is asked to multiply the number of hours expended in the litigation by a reasonable hourly billing rate. See Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983).

Section 406(b) is of a different ilk. This provision does not require the losing party to pay the winner's attorney's fees. Gisbrecht, 535 U.S. at 802. Rather, § 406(b) authorizes the attorney of a successful claimant to recover directly from her client. 535 U.S. at 802 & n.12. Because § 406(b) is not a fee-shifting statute per se, Gisbrecht concluded that the "lodestar" analysis ...

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