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Hopkins v. Gardner

March 15, 1967

RAYMOND HOPKINS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN W. GARDNER, SECRETARY OF HEALTH, EDUCATION AND WELFARE, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE



Hastings, Chief Judge, and Fairchild and Cummings, Circuit Judges.

Author: Fairchild

FAIRCHILD, Circuit Judge.

This appeal, brought in reality by attorney Allen Sharp, involves Sharp's claim that the district court erroneously limited his fee for services in an action to review an administrative decision suspending insurance benefits under the social security act. The problem is the construction of a statute, enacted in 1965, authorizing the court to allow a reasonable attorney's fee where, in such action, a judgment favorable to a claimant is recovered, the fee not to be "in excess of 25 percent of the total of the past-due benefits to which the claimant is entitled by reason of such judgment."*fn1

The secretary contends that the statute applies to all judgments entered after the statute was enacted, and that the 25 percent maximum must be computed upon the total of the past-due benefits to which plaintiff was individually entitled. Sharp contends that the statute was not intended to apply in a case where the fee had been agreed upon before the statute was enacted, but that if it be applicable, the 25 percent is to be computed upon an amount which includes the past-due benefits to which plaintiff's wife and children were entitled, as well as plaintiff's own.

In 1961 and 1962, Raymond Hopkins was receiving disability insurance benefits under the social security act, and his wife and children were receiving the benefits provided by the act for the wife and dependent children of an individual entitled to disability insurance benefits. Late in 1962 the department notified Hopkins that it considered him able to do substantial gainful work and that December, 1962, would be the last month for which he and his wife and children would be entitled to benefits. Hopkins exhausted his administrative remedies, but the final decision was that his benefits had been properly terminated.

Hopkins brought this action to review. His wife and children were not named in either the proceedings for administrative review or as plaintiffs in this action. On September 30, 1965, the district court reversed the secretary's decision and ordered him to "pay disability benefits to the plaintiff from the time of their termination until such time as a new determination is made that plaintiff's disability has, in fact, terminated."

On January 24, 1966, the department wrote Hopkins that because it had been decided that Hopkins was still disabled "you and your family will continue to receive benefit payments." Hopkins' individual past-due benefits through December, 1965, totalled $3,744.80, his wife's benefits $1,287.80, and the children's $3,463.50.

The district court awarded Sharp a fee of 25 percent of the past-due benefits payable to Hopkins individually, up to September 30, 1965, the date of the judgment.

The statute to be construed is as follows:

"Whenever a court renders a judgment favorable to a claimant under this subchapter 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, not in excess of 25 percent of the total of the past-due benefits to which the claimant is entitled by reason of such judgment, and the Secretary may, notwithstanding the provisions of section 405(i) of this title, certify the amount of such fee for payment to such attorney out of, and not in addition to, the amount of such past-due benefits. In case of any such judgment, no other fee may be payable or certified for payment for such representation except as provided in this paragraph."*fn2

Paragraph (b) (2), enacted at the same time, makes it a misdemeanor to charge for services in connection with proceedings to which paragraph (1) is applicable any amount in excess of that allowed by the court.

1. Application to the instant case. Sharp and Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins signed a contract in May, 1964, in which the Hopkins employed Sharp to pursue the disability claim in court and fixed Sharp's compensation at 40 percent of the benefits accrued if awarded by the district court, without appeal, and 50 percent if it became necessary to appeal. The complaint was filed July 2, 1964. The statute was enacted July 30, 1965. Most of the services had been rendered before that date. Judgment was rendered September 30, 1965.

Mr. Sharp relies on the rule of construction that "a law will not be construed as retroactive unless the act clearly, by express language or necessary implication, indicates that the legislature intended a retroactive application."*fn3 The judgment was rendered, however, after the statute was enacted, and the statute says "Whenever a court renders a judgment * * *." Strictly speaking, application of this statute to a judgment rendered after its enactment is not retrospective. The retrospective impact results from the fact that this action was begun before the enactment, and that plaintiff and the attorney had agreed upon a fee before that. The same will be true with respect to many judgments rendered after enactment, though the proportion of time elapsed and services rendered before and after the enactment will vary widely. The difficulty of formulating any exception of already pending cases which would still serve the purpose Congress had in mind suggests that it was a deliberate choice to apply the new rule to all cases not yet terminated.

The report of a senate committee makes it plain that Congress was concerned about the charging of inordinately large fees, usually resulting from a contingent fee arrangement,*fn4 and it seems a very reasonable ...


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