Jansen VanderMeulen ‘19
Students in the UVA Law Supreme Court Clinic reacted with dignified delight earlier this month when the United States Supreme Court ruled for a petitioner represented by the clinic in Culbertson v. Berryhill, 586 U.S. __ (2019) in a 9–0 opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas. Clinic Director Professor Dan Ortiz argued the case on behalf of petitioner Richard Allen Culbertson, an attorney who represented plaintiffs appealing denials of Social Security benefits, and the clinic students researched, drafted, and edited the briefs in addition to helping Professor Ortiz prepare for oral arguments.
Clinic student and Friend of the Law Weekly Lauren Schnepper ’19 outlined the (admittedly rather dry) facts of the case for the paper. Culbertson appealed a client’s denial of Social Security benefits to both the district court and the Social Security Administration, eventually earning the client an award of $35,211 in past-due benefits. Culbertson sought attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. §406(a) (aka Title II of the Social Security Act), which governs fees for representation in administrative proceedings, and §406(b), which applies to fees for representation in court. Section 406(b) caps attorney’s fees at no more than 25 percent of past-due benefits. The district court and United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that §406(b)’s 25% cap limits the aggregate fees awarded for representation before both the court and the agency, while Culbertson argued that §406(b)’s cap applied only to court representation.
The clinic—and Professor Ortiz at oral arguments—emphasized a textual argument. Section 406(b) is titled “Fees for representation before the court” and states, “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.” (Emphasis added.) The clinic argued that the crucial phrase was “such representation”—that is, that this portion of the statute referred only to representation “before the court,” and that its attorney’s fee cap did not apply to proceedings before an agency.
The Court agreed with the UVA Law Supreme Court Clinic unanimously, holding in an opinion by Justice Thomas that “the statute’s language is plain” (internal quotations omitted) and that “applying §406(b)’s 25 percent cap on court-stage fees to §406(a) agency-stage fees, or the aggregate of §§406(a) and (b) fees, would make little sense.” The Solicitor General’s office switched positions and supported reversal of the Eleventh Circuit, so the respondent was represented by amicus curiae Amy Weil, who argued reading the statute not to cap damages would result in attorneys’ suing their clients to recover attorney’s fees. Justice Sonia Sotomayor advanced that position at oral arguments, but Professor Ortiz riposted that Congress had elsewhere in the statute provided for aggregate caps and that its failure to do so in this section should be read as intentional. He also noted that the vast majority of Social Security disability claimants are judgment-proof, so the Court shouldn’t worry about attorneys’ suing clients to get their fees. Clinic students were confident they had a “strong textual argument,” according to Schnepper, but others reportedly worried after oral argument that Justice Sotomayor would vote against their position. But their worry turned out to be in vain; Justice Sotomayor joined Justice Thomas’s opinion without comment.
The victory was a long time coming for the Supreme Court Clinic students, who began work on Culbertson on their first day of fall semester. Students spent the semester researching the facts, the legal issues, the circuit split (the Fourth and Fifth Circuits joined the Eleventh in holding that the cap applied to agency proceedings while the Sixth, Ninth, and Tenth agreed with the Court’s ultimate holding), and opposing arguments. Schnepper called the clinic “one of the most demanding things I have done in law school” but called winning at the Supreme Court “amazing.” Annie Chiang ’19 agreed, saying she was “really excited to see that the win was unanimous” and noting her personal excitement that Justice Thomas wrote the opinion given his textualist prowess. Professor Ortiz lauded the clinic students for authoring all but the final redrafting of briefs and mooting him before oral arguments. “The fear of their embarrassing me, an easy prospect, really forced me to up my game. That’s always healthy.”
Participants in Culbertson lavished praise on the clinic for giving them the chance to participate in such a high endeavor. Chiang called the clinic “a very substantive opportunity for me to learn from really smart and talented people at the law school” and credited Professor Ortiz with helping the students understand “how to best communicate legal ideas—something applicable to this coming semester in the clinic and beyond.” Schnepper attended the oral argument in the case and, being able to anticipate the Justices’ questions and even having answers to a few, had “one of [her] cooler law school experiences.”
Other cases remain for the Supreme Court Clinic: On January 11, the Court granted certiorari in Quarles v. United States, an Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) case in which the clinic represents petitioner Jamar Alonzo Quarles. But for now, clinic students are doing something classically, authentically law school-ish: reveling in the glory of a unanimous opinion on a highly technical issue. Hats off from the Law Weekly to the UVA Law SCOTUS Clinic.