Another Screwing for the Little Guy

Little people get screwed more often than not. Big business wins. The wealthy win. And now, the Supreme Court has applied a liberal dose of Vaseline to the wrong end of a gavel. Bend over, America. Big Brother now wins, too, even when he loses.

How else to construe the unanimous ruling of the Court in the case of Astrue v. Ratliff? The Court held that when a client owes the Government money, the Government can take attorney's fees awarded to the client when the client beats the Government in court. The same Government that was forced to pay attorney's fees has the right to turn around seize those fees to offset money owed the Government.

Catherine Ratliff is a small-town lawyer. She sued the Social Security Administration on behalf of her client. She won the case, forcing the feds to pay her client additional disability benefits. Then she applied for attorney's fees under a statute that permits the prevailing party to seek fees. The court awarded a whopping $2,239.35 in legal fees, about the cost of a coffee break in big firm.

But rather than pay the lawyer her fee, the Government claimed that the money should be used to offset the client's unrelated debt to the Government. Memo to lawyers: Don't take cases for those indebted to the Government. Let the little people rot in a virtual debtor's prison.

Plaintiffs can seek attorney's fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act when they prevail against the Government. The fees can be awarded in the court's discretion.

More than 12,000 civil actions are filed annually to challenge administrative denials of Social Security claims alone, according to the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives, AARP, National Senior Citizens Law Center and other organizations. They also note that "over half of fee awards under the EAJA are in Social Security cases." These awards are typically small, going to solo lawyers, and amount to $3,000 to $4,000 per case. No one is getting rich litigating these claims.

In most states, an attorney's lien is sacrosanct. A lawyer represents a person, litigates a claim, and then takes his or her fee before other lienholders get paid. The theory is that but for the lawyer's work and willingness to do the work, the case would not have been brought. In the case of people without means who need legal representation an attorney's lien assures that lawyers will be available to poor people. Astrue sends a powerful message to the bar: a lawyer should expect no fee from a potential client in debt to the Government.

There is a more honest way to deprive poor people of access to justice. Most states have what is known as a fugitive disentitlement act. This doctrine prohibits a person who refuses to submit to a court's jurisdiction by, for example, fleeing from an arrest, to turn to the courts for relief in an unrelated matter. This equitable doctrine reflects the law's concern with clean hands. If we mean to deprive the poor of access to the courts we ought at least to be honest about it. How about a Deadbeat Disenfranchisement Act?

Astrue sends a new message: Those in debt to the Government for whatever reason ought simply to be still. They ought not to seek justice. Vindication of rights is the sport only of those on good terms with Uncle Sam.

This is a perversion of justice. The Court's tortured reasoning is an invitation to Congress to amend the attorney's fee-shifting statute to make sure that attorney's fees are not liable to seizure by the Government. It is simply wrong for the Government to be sued, lose the case, and then reclaim part of what it has been forced to pay.

About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

Personal Website


Law Firm Website


I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

Pattis Video