When a lawyer challenges a denial of benefits by the Social Security Administration [SSA] and is successful on behalf of a client on appeal in a federal court, there’s a lovely section of the Social Security Act known as 42 U.S.C. § 406(b) which provides the possibilty of attorneys' fees.
Specifically, § 406(b) states that: “Whenever a court renders a judgment favorable to a [social-security-benefits] claimant . . . who was represented before the court by an attorney, the court may determine and allow as part of its judgment a reasonable fee for such representation . . . .” It was this section that was at issue in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeal’s Jan. 25th decision in Samuel D. Jackson v. Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security.
In Jackson, a district court determined that § 406(b) does not authorize attorneys’ fees when a district court remands a case to the SSA, even when the SSA grants benefits on remand. On appeal, both Jackson and the SSA agreed that the district court’s construction of § 406(b) was “erroneous.” So it wasn’t much of a surprise that the 5th Circuit decided to reverse the attorneys' fee issue back to the trial court in Jackson.
“In short, the district court’s construction of § 406(b) unavoidably reduces the likelihood that an attorney who undertakes a disability benefits representation will receive reasonable compensation for his work,” wrote Senior Judge Patrick Higginbotham in a decision joined by Judges Edith Clement and Catharina Haynes. Higginbotham also pointed out that the 5th Circuit does not stand alone in this reasoning and had made a similar determination before in 2010’s Jeter v. Astrue. “For substantially the reasons set forth above, all five circuits to consider the question have determined that § 406(b) are authorized in cases where an attorney obtains a favorable decision on remand. The SSA has not opposed such fees in over 25 years and now urges this Court to reaffirm our position in Jeter. We take the agency’s invitation,” Higginbotham concluded.