United States District Court, D. Maryland
STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the Court by the parties' consent. (ECF Nos. 6, 7). Vincent Piazza, Esq. has filed a petition for attorney's fees pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 406(b). (ECF No. 25). After requests from the Court, Mr. Piazza filed supplemental information about the fee petition and his intention to seek payment from his client. (ECF Nos. 29, 33, 35). The Commissioner has opposed Mr. Piazza's petition, contending that he did not present a proper contingent-fee agreement pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 406(b). (ECF No. 30). No hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). For the reasons set forth below, Mr. Piazza's Petition for Attorney's Fees is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.
Robert Emory filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") in November, 2007. (ECF No. 19 at 121-32). He was represented throughout the agency proceedings by Mr. Piazza. After benefits were denied through the administrative appeals process, on February 11, 2011, Mr. Emory petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny his claims. (ECF No. 1). Mr. Emory submitted a motion for summary judgment, and the Commissioner subsequently filed a consent motion to remand Mr. Emory's claim to the agency under Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (ECF Nos. 14, 20). The Court granted the consent remand October 5, 2011. (ECF No. 21).
After the consent remand, Mr. Emory requested attorney's fees for Mr. Piazza under the Equal Access to Justice Act ("EAJA") on November 9, 2011. (ECF No. 22). The Commissioner stipulated to an award of $3, 462.50 in EAJA fees to Mr. Piazza. (ECF No. 23). After further proceedings at the agency, on September 26, 2013, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") awarded past-due SSI and DIB benefits to Mr. Emory, finding him disabled since May 1, 2007. (ECF No. 25, Ex. 2). In a letter dated November 6, 2013, the SSA awarded Mr. Emory $89, 370.00 in past due benefits. (ECF No. 25, Ex. 4). Subsequently, the SSA authorized a fee in the amount of $6, 000.00 for Mr. Piazza's work in front of the agency, which he received, minus a small administrative fee. (ECF No. 29).
Mr. Piazza timely filed the instant Petition for Attorney's Fees on November 25, 2013, seeking $22, 342.50, or twenty-five percent of Mr. Emory's past due benefits, for work in front of the federal district court. (ECF No. 25). The Commissioner contends that Mr. Piazza does not have a contingent-fee agreement with Mr. Emory that controls the instant request, and, thus, the Court should award an amount it deems reasonable. (ECF No. 30).
Upon an award of retroactive disability benefits, the Court may allow plaintiff's counsel reasonable attorney's fees totaling no more than twenty-five percent of such benefits. 42 U.S.C. §§ 406(b), 1383(d)(2)(B)(i). The Supreme Court has emphasized the primacy of the contingent-fee agreement made between attorney and client in determining the fees that should be paid to that attorney for successfully representing a claimant for Social Security benefits. Gisbrecht v. Barnhart, 535 U.S. 789, 807 (2002). The court's role is to "review  such agreements as an independent check, to assure that they yield reasonable results in particular cases." Id.
Mr. Piazza attached to the instant petition a contingent-fee agreement signed by Mr. Piazza and Mr. Emory that reads:
[My attorney and I] agree that if the SSA favorably decides the claim at any stage through the first hearing at the Administrative Law Judge level I will pay my attorney a maximum fee of the lower of (a) 25% of all past-due benefits, or (b) $6, 000.00 or the applicable maximum amount set by the Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. section 406(a).
(ECF No. 25, Ex. 3) (dated June 7, 2010) (emphasis added). After reviewing that language, this Court asked Mr. Piazza to supplement his petition specifying whether he had sought attorney's fees from the SSA and whether there existed any additional fee agreement that governed the fee for any proceedings occurring after the first hearing at the Administrative Judge level, including the proceedings in this Court. (ECF No. 28). Mr. Piazza provided a supplement stating that he had received payment for his work at the administrative level from the agency, and he attached the same attorney fee agreement from June, 2010. (ECF No. 29). The Commissioner observes that Mr. Piazza had previously provided this Court with a fee agreement specifying payment terms under the EAJA for his work in federal court. (ECF No. 30) (directing the Court's attention to ECF No. 22, Ex. 3). That agreement reads in pertinent part:
If my attorney is successful in federal court review... I understand that he will be entitled to an attorney fee and reimbursement of his costs for his work in federal court. I also understand that my attorney will request that the court order the government to pay the attorney's fees... pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). If this happens, I hereby assign any court awarded EAJA attorney fees and costs, for federal work only, to my attorney.
(ECF No. 22, Ex. 3) (emphasis in original). That fee agreement contains no mention of the potential total amount of attorney's fees that could be paid, no indication of an hourly rate, and no inkling that a percentage of Mr. Emory's past-due benefits may be directed to his attorney by the agency.
Upon further review of the exhibits submitted by Mr. Piazza, the Court requested additional supplemental information from the parties because it appeared from the SSA Notice of Award that the agency had only withheld $6, 000 from Mr. Emory's past-due benefits for the payment of attorney's fees. (ECF No. 31); see also (ECF No. 24, Ex. 4) ("Under the fee agreement, the representative cannot charge you more than $6, 000.00 for his or her work."). Further, the Court asked Mr. Piazza whether he intended to seek direct payment from Mr. Emory if the agency had in fact only withheld $6, 000. Id. Mr. Piazza initially responded that he would not seek payment from Mr. Emory, (ECF No. 33), but two days later provided an additional supplemental answer stating that he would seek payment of any attorney's fees ordered by the ...