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.

Comments: (1)

  • I lifted a comment by Jim Keech from a competing b...
    I lifted a comment by Jim Keech from a competing blogsite. It's nicely done and would seem to apply to any number of essays here. Since no one has posted a comment on the above, I hereby resubmit it because of its general relevance here in its entirety. (Hope he does not mind!):
    Jim Keech wrote:
    "I would certainly find it hard to argue that skepticism of government is in any way a bad thing. Unfortunately, what I see happening is less the growth of skepticism of government's magical powers than it is a erosion of the idea that the government is legitimate; which is a very different thing.
    "Herbert Marcuse wrote that "Law and order is everywhere the law and order that protects the established hierarchy." Few of my clients read philosophy, but they understand that statement on a cellular level. What I see in the Tea Party movement--and lately Glenn Greenwald--is that those who were sure they were part of the established hierarchy are now feeling disenfranchised. This can create a dangerous situation. Successful revolutions seem to occur when the upper-middle class feels betrayed or locked out. This is why military coups usually consist of Colonels, not Generals. It's why the Magna Carta was rammed through by the Barons, not the Dukes and Earls. It's why the storming of the Bastille freed five aristocrats, not peasants. Those on the very bottom of the pile almost never revolt on their own, and those at the very top don't need to.
    "Tea Party demographics--middle-aged and up, above average income, largely white--are pretty classic for a revolutionary base. They are not so much skeptical as they are indignant. After all, they played by the rules and saw their savings wiped out by those above them, saw their home equity diminish significantly, saw their businesses collapsing, and; prospectively; see their status as the majority core constituency disappearing. They are frightened more than anything else. And fear--the kind of existential fear that I see in those groups--is a powerful, unpredictable and
    frightening force.
    "Mind you, there is much--most even--of government that I would cheerfully wave goodbye to. My fear, however, is that we have a demographic which is ripe for a "Man on a Horse" type takeover. And that scares the bejeezus out of me."
    Posted on June 17, 2010 at 1:21 am by William Doriss

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