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Destefano v. Astrue

March 4, 2008

JOSEPH DESTEFANO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roanne L. Mann, United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

By this action, plaintiff Joseph DeStefano ("plaintiff") sought judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("defendant") denying plaintiff's request for disability benefits. In an opinion entered on July 25, 2007, the Honorable Nicholas G. Garaufis reversed defendant's decision and remanded the case to the Social Security Administration ("SSA") to calculate the amount of benefits owed to plaintiff. Currently pending before this Court, on referral from Judge Garaufis, is plaintiff's application for legal fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d), as well as fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b), the Social Security Act provision governing contingent-fee arrangements in federal court actions. Defendant objects to both fee amounts as excessive.

For the reasons set forth below, the Court reduces the amount of EAJA fees from $14,380.07 to $11,000.00, but declines to disturb the twenty-five percent contingency fee agreed upon by plaintiff and his counsel.

BACKGROUND

In March 1991, plaintiff injured his back while on duty as a New York City Police Officer. See Declaration [of Christopher Bowes] in Support of Motion for Attorney Fees ("Bowes Decl.") at ¶ 3. Following the accident, plaintiff continued to work on a restricted basis, but the pain from his back injury and resulting arthritic condition led plaintiff to retire on October 30, 1992. See id. at ¶ 4. Almost two years later, on October 24, 1994, plaintiff entered into a contingent-fee agreement ("the 1994 Agreement") with the law firm of Seelig and Ungaro ("S&U"), which agreed to represent plaintiff in connection with an application for Social Security Disability ("SSD") benefits, in exchange for twenty-five percent of any past-due benefits that plaintiff received. See id. at ¶ 6. On November 15, 1994, S&U filed an application for SSD benefits on plaintiff's behalf. See id. at ¶ 7. This application was denied initially and on reconsideration, prompting plaintiff to request a hearing. See id. at ¶ 8.

On April 18, 2001, Administrative Law Judge Marilyn P. Hoppenfeld ("ALJ Hoppenfeld") held a hearing on plaintiff's claim.*fn1 See Bowes Decl. at ¶ ¶ 11-12. On March 28, 2003, ALJ Hoppenfeld issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. See id. at ¶ 14. Specifically, ALJ Hoppenfeld concluded that plaintiff's condition failed to meet or equal any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 of the applicable regulations, so as to qualify plaintiff as disabled. See 3/28/03 Decision [by ALJ Hoppenfeld] at 12 (attached to Complaint ("Compl.")); DeChirico v. Callahan, 134 F.3d 1177, 1179-80 (2d Cir. 1998). ALJ Hoppenfeld additionally determined that plaintiff, although not able to return to his former police position, was still capable of performing light work. See Bowes Decl. at ¶ 14. Plaintiff timely appealed, and, more than two years later, on June 23, 2005, the Appeals Council issued a notice denying the request for appeal. See id. at ¶ 15.

On July 8, 2005, plaintiff and his counsel entered into a new contingent-fee agreement for legal representation at the federal court level ("the 2005 Agreement"). See 7/8/05 Letter (attached as Ex. A to Bowes Decl.). Under the 2005 Agreement, which rescinded the 1994 Agreement, plaintiff again agreed to pay counsel twenty-five percent of any past-due benefits procured by him. See id. Subsequently, plaintiff filed suit in this Court asking for judicial review of ALJ Hoppenfeld's decision, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See generally Compl. On July 25, 2007, Judge Garaufis reversed ALJ Hoppenfeld's decision and remanded the matter to the SSA for the sole purpose of calculating the amount of past benefits owed to plaintiff. See 7/25/07 Memorandum & Order. On September 17, 2007, the SSA issued a Notice of Award reflecting that plaintiff was entitled to $220,765.50 in back payments. See 9/17/07 Notice of Award (attached as Ex. B to Bowes Decl.).

The following month, plaintiff filed an application for fees under the EAJA and for approval of the 2005 Agreement pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b). See 10/25/07 Notice of Motion for Attorneys Fees. Defendant thereafter objected to both fee amounts as excessive.

See generally 12/3/07 Memorandum of Law in Partial Opposition to Plaintiff's Petition for Attorney's Fees ("Def. Mem."). On December 28, 2007, Judge Garaufis referred plaintiff's application to the undersigned magistrate judge. See 12/28/07 Order. With leave of the Court and defendant's consent, plaintiff filed a belated reply on February 1, 2008. See 2/1/08 Reply Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees ("Pl. Reply"); see also 1/29/08 Order; 1/30/08 Letter [by Christopher J. Bowes].

DISCUSSION

In the pending motion, plaintiff seeks the following relief: (1) an order compelling defendant to pay plaintiff, as a fee award under the EAJA, $14,380.07 for 86.05 hours of attorney time; and (2) judicial approval of the contingent-fee agreement granting plaintiff's counsel twenty-five percent of plaintiff's award of $220,765.50 in past-due benefits, or $55,191.38 in fees.*fn2 Plaintiff's counsel agree, as they must, that the smaller award -- here, the EAJA fees -- would offset plaintiff's liability for fees under the 2005 Agreement. See Memorandum of Law In Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Attorney's Fees ("Pl. Mem.") at 1, 8; Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 796 (2002); Joslyn v. Barnhart, 389 F.Supp.2d 454, 457 (W.D.N.Y. 2005); Reyes v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 807 F.Supp. 293, 297 (S.D.N.Y 1992). As detailed below, the Court approves the contingency award but reduces the EAJA fees payable by the government.

I. EAJA

A. Applicable Legal Standards

The EAJA requires a district court to award fees and costs to prevailing parties in certain civil actions against the United States (including cases against the SSA) unless "the position of the United States was substantially justified or [] special circumstances make an award unjust." See 28 U.S.C. § 2412(d)(1)(A). The EAJA was designed to encourage those plaintiffs who might otherwise be deterred by the costs of litigation to defend against, or seek review of, unreasonable government action. See Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 883 (1989) (quoting S. Rep. No. 96-253, p.5 (1979)). A party requesting an award pursuant to the EAJA must apply within thirty days of final judgment*fn3 and submit with the application "an itemized statement from any attorney . . . representing or appearing on behalf of the party stating the actual time expended and the rates at which fees and other expenses were computed." See 28 U.S.C. ยง 2412(d)(1)(B). EAJA rates may not exceed $125 an hour unless the court determines that the ...


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