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Wood v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

June 26, 2017

KATRINA F. WOOD, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant-Appellee. CELALETTIN AKARCAY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant-Appellee. BILL J. WESTFALL, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant-Appellee. DARLEEN R. SCHUSTER, Plaintiff-Appellant, RICHARD ALLEN CULBERTSON, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket Nos. 6:13-cv-01336-KRS, 6:12-cv-00915-DAB, 6:12-cv-01882-KRS, 6:14-cv-00784-DAB

          Before MARTIN, JILL PRYOR, and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges.

          MARTIN, Circuit Judge:

         Richard Culbertson was counsel to the four plaintiffs shown in the caption here, who asked for and were awarded Social Security disability benefits. This appeal consolidates the four cases, and it is about attorney's fees for Mr. Culbertson. To his credit, Mr. Culbertson represented Katrina Wood, Celalettin Akarcay, Bill Westfall, and Darleen Schuster (together, the "claimants") in their successful challenge to the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny them disability benefits. After winning for these clients, Mr. Culbertson asked the District Court to award him attorney's fees in all four cases.[1]

         Two statutes govern fees paid to lawyers representing Social Security claimants. First, 42 U.S.C. § 406 allows the Commissioner to set a fee for representation of the claimant at the administrative level, id. § 406(a), and the District Court to set a fee for representation of the claimant in court, id. § 406(b). Second, a claimant can request fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d). In this appeal, Mr. Culbertson argues that the District Court did not correctly calculate the fees he is entitled to under these statutes and Eleventh Circuit precedent. After careful consideration, and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm the decisions of the District Court.[2]

         I.

         Mr. Culbertson represented all four of the captioned plaintiffs in appealing the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits to them. He was successful in all four appeals. We will set out a narrative about each of the cases, which is summarized in a chart in section I.E. A. MS. WOOD

         The District Court reversed the Commissioner's denial of benefits to Ms. Wood, then remanded her case to the Commissioner. The court later awarded Ms. Wood $4, 107.27 in attorney's fees under the EAJA. On remand, the Commissioner awarded Ms. Wood past-due benefits of $30, 871 and awarded her child $4, 340 as an auxiliary beneficiary. As is customary, the Commissioner withheld 25% of the total award ($8, 595.75) to pay attorney's fees. The Commissioner also awarded Mr. Culbertson $2, 865 under § 406(a) for representing Ms. Wood at the administrative level.

         Mr. Culbertson asked the District Court for attorney's fees of $4, 488.48 under § 406(b) for representing Ms. Wood in court. He calculated this figure by subtracting the EAJA award from the 25% of the past-due benefits the Commissioner withheld. The court granted Mr. Culbertson's request in part, but limited his award to $1, 623.48. The court declined to pay the full amount requested by Mr. Culbertson because it found he failed to subtract the earlier § 406(a) award in calculating his fees.

         B. MR. AKARCAY

         As with Ms. Wood's case, the District Court reversed the Commissioner's denial of benefits to Mr. Akarcay and remanded the case back to the Commissioner. The District Court later awarded Mr. Akarcay $3, 121.70 in attorney's fees under the EAJA. On remand, the Commissioner awarded Mr. Akarcay past-due benefits of $69, 047, withholding the usual 25% ($17, 261.75) for attorney's fees.

         Mr. Culbertson asked the District Court for permission to charge Mr. Akarcay $14, 140.05 in attorney's fees under § 406(b), which was the amount withheld minus the EAJA award. The court denied Mr. Culbertson's request. The District Court reasoned that it could not determine the proper § 406(b) fee award without first knowing the attorney's fee award the Commissioner would grant under § 406(a). The District Court directed Mr. Culbertson to file a renewed motion after the Commissioner determined the § 406(a) fee award.

         C. MS. SCHUSTER

         As with the others, the District Court reversed the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits to Ms. Schuster. The court remanded the case back to the Commissioner and later awarded Ms. Schuster $4, 988.17 in EAJA attorney's fees. On remand, the Commissioner awarded Ms. Schuster past-due benefits of $54, 382, withholding 25% of the award ($13, 595.50) for attorney's fees.

         Mr. Culbertson sought $10, 707.08[3] in attorney's fees under § 406(b). The District Court denied Mr. Culbertson's request, again reasoning that it could not decide the proper § 406(b) fee award until the Commissioner awarded attorney's fees under § 406(a). The District Court noted Mr. Culbertson could file a renewed motion after the § 406(a) fees were set.

         D. MR. WESTFALL

         Again in Mr. Westfall's case, the District Court reversed the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits to him. The court remanded the case to the Commissioner, and awarded Mr. Westfall $2, 713.30 in EAJA attorney's fees. On remand, the Commissioner awarded Mr. Westfall ...


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