Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Public Benefits
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The Second Circuit reversed the district court's denial in part of the law firm's motion for attorney's fees in a Social Security disability case. The court held that for a court to find an attorney's agreed-upon contingency fee unreasonable under 42 U.S.C. 406(b) on the sole ground that it constitutes a windfall, it must be truly clear that the high fee represents a sum unearned by counsel. In this case, the requested fee was not such a windfall and there is no other reason to think that the fee requested is unreasonable. Therefore, the court remanded with instructions to order the Social Security Administration to release the requested fee to the law firm. View "Fields v. Kijakazi" on Justia Law

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Wade filed her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income in 2015. An ALJ denied Wade’s claim in 2017, finding her not disabled. Following an unsuccessful administrative appeal, Wade filed suit, seeking leave to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP). The district court granted Wade’s IFP motion and, in 2020, entered judgment in the Commissioner’s favor. Wade proceeded IFP with her appeal. The Ninth Circuit found that the ALJ erred, reversed the order affirming the denial of benefits, and remanded for further administrative review. Wade then submitted a bill of appellate costs, seeking $169.65 from the government for copies of briefs and excerpts of record.The Ninth Circuit denied the request. A party who proceeds IFP and prevails on appeal is not entitled to recover taxable costs from the United States, 28 U.S.C. 1915(f)(1); “judgment may be rendered for costs at the conclusion of the suit or action as in other proceedings, but the United States shall not be liable for any of the costs thus incurred.” View "Wade v. Kijakazi" on Justia Law

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Attorney Conn represented Plaintiffs and thousands of other claimants in seeking disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. Conn bribed doctors to certify false applications and bribed an ALJ to approve those applications. After Conn’s scheme was uncovered, the SSA identified over 1,700 applications for redetermination of eligibility. Years of litigation ensued. Both Plaintiffs sought attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. 2412(d)(1)(A). Both courts awarded fees less than the amounts requested.The Sixth Circuit vacated the awards. Courts can award attorney’s fees for work performed during “all phases of successful civil litigation addressed by” the EAJA; one district court erred by holding that the EAJA does not authorize fees for work performed after the judgment becomes final. Both district courts abused their discretions by awarding below-market hourly rates. Plaintiffs’ unrefuted evidence established a market range of $205-500 but the courts concluded that the relative simplicity of the actions justified rates of only $125 and $150, although there is no evidence that any lawyer in the relevant communities would accept these rates for any kind of service. The complexity of the action is relevant to determine where the particular attorney’s representation lies along the spectrum of the market for legal services. It cannot be invoked to justify a rate below the established spectrum. View "Doucette v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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A.B., a 40-year-old male diagnosed to suffer from severe schizophrenia, has been subject to conservatorships on and off for 20 years. A.B. has no real property or significant assets; his only income is $973.40 in monthly social security benefits. The public guardian was most recently appointed as A.B.’s conservator in 2016 and reappointed annually until the dismissal of the conservatorship in 2019. In August 2017, the public guardian was awarded $1,025 and county counsel was awarded $365 in compensation for services rendered 2016-2017. In 2018, the court entered an order for compensation for the public guardian and county counsel in the same amounts covering 2017-2018. The public guardian sought compensation for services rendered 2018-2019, $1,569.79 for its services, and $365 for county counsel.The court found that the request for compensation was just, reasonable, and necessary to sustain the support and maintenance of the conservatee, and approved the petition, again ordering the public guardian to defer collection of payment if it determined that collection would impose a financial hardship on the conservatee. The court of appeal reversed. While the court had sufficient information before it to enable consideration of the factors enumerated in Probate Code section 2942(b), the court failed to do so and improperly delegated responsibility to the public guardian to defer collection. View "Conservatorship of A.B." on Justia Law

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Cameron filed a Notice of Disagreement (NOD) on behalf of an Army veteran in August 2005. The VA denied Cameron attorney’s fees under 38 C.F.R. 14.636(c), which permits an attorney to charge fees for services provided before a final Board decision only where a NOD was filed on or after June 20, 2007. Before the law was amended, attorneys representing veterans in veterans’ benefits cases before the VA were prohibited from charging fees for services provided before a final Board decision.The Veterans Court and the Federal Circuit affirmed the denial, holding that section 14.636(c) is consistent with its authorizing statute, 38 U.S.C. 5904. Congress considered eliminating all fee restrictions under section 5904(c)(1) by repealing subsection (c)(1) entirely but made a legislative choice between the competing purposes of liberalizing the availability of attorney’s fees and avoiding disruption to the veterans’ benefits system, and “adopted a delayed and staggered effective date . . . [to] allow a deliberate and gradual implementation of these policies in order to minimize any disruption to the VA system.” In denying Cameron attorney’s fees, the VA has done no more than give effect to that legislative choice. View "Cameron v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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The Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. 2412, requires that if statutory requirements are met, the federal government must reimburse attorneys’ fees of a party who prevails in a lawsuit against the government. Smith, dissatisfied with the VA’s decision regarding his claims for veterans’ benefits, took an appeal to the Veterans Court. He was successful on the merits in part of his case and requested an EAJA award for his appellate counsel. The Veterans Court agreed to an award which included fees for 18 hours the attorney spent on an initial review of the 9,389-page agency record. The court imposed a reduction in that part of the award because Smith prevailed on some but not all of the issues that were litigated. The Veterans Court reasoned that this reduction was required as a matter of law by the EAJA.The Federal Circuit reversed in part. The Veterans Court undervalued the importance of the initial review of the case, a review that is necessary before appellate counsel could determine what bases existed for an appeal. That decision was contrary to the purpose and law of the EAJA. The court noted that if Smith had brought only the successful claim, the hours would have been fully compensated. View "Smith v. McDonough" on Justia Law

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For many years, attorney Conn obtained social security benefits for his clients by submitting fraudulent reports and bribing an Administrative Law Judge. After the government discovered this fraud, the SSA decided to redetermine whether each of Conn’s 1,500 claimants was actually eligible for disability benefits. The SSA held hearings and allowed the claimants to submit evidence but categorically excluded medical reports created by the doctors with whom Conn had conspired because it had “reason to believe” fraud was involved in the creation of the reports (42 U.S.C. 1383(e)(7)(A)(ii))). The claimants were not permitted to challenge that finding. After the denials of their claims, 57 plaintiffs filed suit.The Sixth Circuit held that the exclusion of the reports violated the Due Process Clause and the APA. On remand, the district courts concluded that remand to the SSA was proper because “the Commissioner erred in some respect in reaching the decision to deny benefits.”The Sixth Circuit affirmed the subsequent denial of the plaintiffs’ motions for attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act. The government’s position in the litigation was “substantially justified,” in light of the precedent cited by the government, the rationale for the decision, and the fact that district courts across the country have split on this issue. The case involved numerous issues of first impression. Despite the fact that the government’s arguments were rejected, a reasonable person could have believed them to be correct. View "Wireman v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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James-Cornelius sought compensation under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, alleging that her 17-year-old son, E.J., had suffered dysautonomia, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), and other symptoms as a result of receiving three shots of the HPV vaccine, Gardasil®. While there are no records of medical visits between his first and second vaccinations, the records document his medical visits, symptoms, and diagnoses after his third vaccination. The petition identified medical articles hypothesizing that HPV vaccines can cause dysautonomia and POTS and alleged that the increasing severity of his symptoms is “evidence of re-challenge” and that the pattern of worsening reactions is “strongly probative of a causal relationship” between the vaccine and E.J.’s symptoms, some of which were listed as potential Gardasil® side effects.James-Cornelius unsuccessfully attempted to obtain medical records relating to urgent care visits that she believed occurred before E.J.’s second vaccination. She eventually dismissed her petition, explaining that “she [would] likely be unable to prove" entitlement to compensation. James-Cornelius sought $17,111.12 in attorneys’ fees and costs under 42 U.S.C. 300aa-15(e)(1), asserting that she had filed her petition in good faith and with a reasonable basis. . The Federal Circuit vacated the denial of the petition. The Special Master failed to consider relevant objective evidence. E.J.’s medical records support for James-Cornelius’s reasonable basis claim even without an express medical opinion on causation. The Special Master erroneously concluded that petitioners’ affidavits are categorically “not ‘objective" for evaluating reasonable basis. View "James-Cornelius v. Secretary of Health and Human Services" on Justia Law

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O’Donnell, represented by attorney Horn, challenged the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) denial of her application for disability insurance benefits. A magistrate remanded the case, awarding O’Donnell $7,493.06 in Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 28 U.S.C. 2412(b), fees, paid to Horn. On remand, an ALJ found that O’Donnell was disabled. SSA determined that she was eligible for benefits dating back several months and withheld 25% of O’Donnell’s past-due benefits, $14,515.37, for possible future payment of fees under 42 U.S.C. 406(a), which authorizes SSA to award a “reasonable fee” to persons who successfully represent claimants in administrative proceedings.Horn filed an unopposed motion for authorization to collect $14,515.37 in section 406(b) fees; having already received the $7,493.06 EAJA award, Horn proposed to keep the EAJA fee, with SSA to pay the balance ($7,022.31), leaving $7,493.06 with SSA for future payment of section 406(a) fees. The magistrate’s order stated that Horn was awarded $14,515.37 under section 406(b), payable by the SSA from the past-due benefits and that “Horn will refund" to O'Donnell $7,493.06, equal to the EAJA award, so that Horn would have to look to O’Donnell, not SSA, to satisfy any future section 406(a) fees. An ALJ subsequently awarded Horn $4,925.21 under section 406(a); he had to seek that amount from O’Donnell. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. No statute requires that the court order netting; the Savings Provision contemplates a refund by the attorney. View "O'Donnell v. Saul" on Justia Law

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Graham served in the Marine Corps from 1967-1970 and has been receiving disability compensation benefits since 2001. The VA regional office (RO) informed Graham in 2009 that authorities had identified him as a fugitive felon and the subject of an outstanding warrant issued in 1992. That warrant was withdrawn in February 2009. In May 2009, the RO issued a rating decision that retroactively discontinued Graham’s compensation from December 2001 through February 2009, due to his then-fugitive felon status, and informed Graham that he had been improperly paid $199,158.70 and that his monthly compensation would be partially withheld to pay back the debt.Graham appointed Gumpenberger as his representative on appeal and signed a direct-pay agreement stating that Gumpenberger’s fee would be “20 percent of all past-due benefits awarded … as a result of winning … as provided in 38 C.F.R. 14.636.” In 2013, the Board reversed the RO’s debt ruling, finding that Graham was not a fugitive felon for VA purposes because he had never been aware of the outstanding warrant. The VA had recouped $65,464 from Graham’s monthly benefits. The Veterans Court and Federal Circuit affirmed the RO’s determination that Gumpenberger was entitled to a fee of $13,092.80. Although the total debt invalidated was $199,158.70, the past-due benefit, per 38 U.S.C. 5904(d)(1), being awarded was $65,464. View "Gumpenberger v. Wilkie" on Justia Law