The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that an attorney that successfully represented a client in a Social Security disability benefits suit should be allowed to make a request for a cost-of-living adjustment that would exceed the maximum $125 per hour that can be awarded under the Equal Access to Justice Act.
Jayne A. Mathews-Sheets’ attorney put in a request under the act for $25,200 in attorney fees. He claimed somewhere between 112-116 hours worked on the case at a rate of $225 an hour. U.S. Judge William Lawrence of the Southern District of Indiana thought the number of hours and amount asked for were excessive, so he cut the hours and the amount the unnamed attorney could request to 53 hours at $125 per hour, the presumptive ceiling under the Equal Access to Justice Act. He awarded $6,625 in fees.
The act says the award “shall be based upon prevailing market rates for the kind and quality of the services furnished, except that . . . attorney fees shall not be awarded in excess of $125 per hour unless the court determines that an increase in the cost of living [since 1996, when the current version of the Act was passed] or a special factor, such as the limited availability of qualified attorneys for the proceeding involved, justifies a higher fee.”
The attorney claimed $225 was the prevailing market rate for his services but didn’t provide specifics as to how he came to that number. In his reply brief, he argued for a slightly lower amount. The attorney divided the Consumer Price Index for 2009, when he did most of his work on the case, by the CPI for 1996 when the statutory rate was raised to $125, and multiplied the quotient by $125 to come up with $170 due to inflation.
Judge Lawrence didn’t reject the request for the higher fee based on the weakness of the attorney’s argument, noted 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner, but instead said the information submitted in the reply brief had been submitted too late. The federal appellate court found that the judge’s stated reason for rejecting the enhancement was invalid. It wasn’t improper for the attorney to request the cost-of-living increase for the first time in his reply brief.
The judges thought that a fee of $125 for legal services rendered in 2009 in a Social Security disability appeal seemed “awfully low,” and ordered the lower court to take another look at the attorney’s request. But that is all that is allowed on remand – the attorney mentioned nothing other than inflation that could justify a fee award above the statutory presumptive ceiling, wrote Judge Posner in Jayne A. Mathews-Sheets v. Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, No. 10-3746.
“And so on remand the plaintiff’s lawyer will have to show that without a cost of living increase that would bring the fee award up to $170 per hour, a lawyer capable of competently handling the challenge that his client mounted to the denial of social security disability benefits could not be found in the relevant geographical area to handle such a case,” he wrote.