Court Rejects Cap On Aggregate Attorney Fees Under Social Security Act

Under the Social Security Act, an attorney representing a claimant seeking past-due benefits is limited in the fees he or she may charge. Section 406(a) of the Act capped fees at the lesser of 25 percent of the past-due benefits, or $6,000 in proceedings before the agency. Section 406(b) of the Act capped fees at 25 percent of the past-due benefits for proceedings before a court. Both sections permit the U.S. Social Security Administration to withhold past-due benefits to pay those fees. In Culbertson v. Berryhill, Culbertson represented a claimant in both administrative and court proceedings. He received fees under Section 406(a), but his petition for fees under Section 406(b) was limited to a total cap of 25 percent of the past-due benefits, including what he had received under Section 406(a). Resolving a split among the circuits on the issue, Justice Thomas, on behalf of a unanimous Court, reversed, holding that the fee awards are separate under the plain language of the Act, and thus an attorney who represents a claimant in administrative and court proceedings is entitled to two separate fee awards, each not limited by the other.