Clinic Wins Attorneys’ Fees Case at U.S. Supreme Court

Justices Agree Unanimously on Suit Over Statute’s Guidelines
Supreme Court Litigation Clinic

The Supreme Court Litigation Clinic posed on the steps of the court after the Culbertson argument in November. Photo by Sarah Fay

January 9, 2019

Social Security claimants will have an easier time finding lawyers willing to help them, thanks to a unanimous victory Tuesday in Culbertson v. Berryhill for the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Federal law places a 25 percent cap on attorney fees related to representing individuals claiming Social Security benefits. The question before the justices was whether the law applies only to fees for court representation, as three federal appeals courts have held, or also fees for representation before the agency, as three other appeals courts have held.

The clinic filed on behalf of attorney Richard A. Culbertson, who represented clients before the Social Security Administration and in U.S. District Court. The Supreme Court agreed in May to hear the case.

Culbertson argued that the court did not correctly calculate the fees he is entitled to under federal statutes. The case rose to the Supreme Court’s attention after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled against Culbertson last year.

Professor Daniel R. Ortiz, the clinic’s director, argued the case on Nov. 7. He based his argument on common sense, he said, and that the dictionary definition of “such” in the statute’s “such representation” clause means the law’s cap applies only to work done in court.

In an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court reversed the 11th Circuit and ruled that the cap indeed applies only to fees for court representation and not to the aggregate fees awarded under federal law.

The justices embraced Ortiz’s argument, noting, “Both at the time of enactment and today, the adjective ‘such’ means ‘[o]f the kind or degree already described or implied.’”

“The opinion completely vindicates our position and will make it easier in the future for Social Security claimants and beneficiaries to find lawyers able to help them navigate very technical administrative and judicial proceedings on which their wellbeing depends,” Ortiz said. “The [clinic] students are thrilled.”

Culbertson was the clinic’s 15th case before the court since its inception in 2006 and Ortiz’s sixth time appearing before the justices.

The Law School tied for second in the number of lawyers from an organization arguing before the Supreme Court in the 2017 term, excluding the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General, and was first among law schools.

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