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Moriarty v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 30, 2014

MARSHALL T. MORIARTY, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


KENNETH P. NEIMAN, Magistrate Judge.

Marshall T. Moriarty ("Plaintiff") brings this action asserting that, as an attorney, he is entitled to mandamus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1361. In short, Plaintiff maintains that since June 1, 2012, the defendant Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") does not - but, Plaintiff says, is required to - include the Massachusetts state supplement when calculating attorneys' fees in Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSI") cases. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court.

Presently, the Commissioner seeks dismissal of Plaintiff's complaint, arguing that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. For the following reasons, the court will deny the Commissioner's motion and, in doing so, reserve for another day the underlying legal question raised by Plaintiff's complaint.


Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), a defendant may move to dismiss an action based on lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction. "[T]he party invoking the jurisdiction of a federal court carries the burden of proving its existence." Taber Partners, I v. Merit Builders, Inc., 987 F.2d 57, 60 (1st Cir. 1993). When considering such a motion, a court must credit the plaintiff's well-pled factual allegations and draw all reasonable inferences in his or her favor. Merlonghi v. United States, 620 F.3d 50, 54 (1st Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). A plaintiff who asserts jurisdiction based on "unsupported conclusions or interpretations of law, " however, cannot prevail under the rule. Murphy v. United States, 45 F.3d 520, 522 (1st Cir. 1995) (quoting Washington Legal Found. v. Massachusetts Bar Found., 993 F.2d 962, 971 (1st Cir. 1993)).


Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(d), the Commissioner sets the maximum fee for attorneys who have prevailed on behalf of their clients in SSI cases. (Complaint at ¶ 2.) In essence, the Commissioner must certify for payment a fee equal to so much of the maximum fee as does not exceed "25 percent of the total amount of... past-due benefits." (Id. ¶ 4 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 406).) An administrative fee is then deducted from this amount pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(d)(2)(B). (Id. ¶ 3.)

These statutory provisions are straightforward enough. The present dispute, however, necessitates a deeper analysis. Under the Social Security Act, there is a nationally uniform federal benefit ("federal benefit") for the SSI program and a somewhat less uniform state supplement ("state benefit"). (Id. ¶ 5.) States can either pay the federal government to administer the state benefit ("federal administration") or administer the state benefit themselves ("state administration"). (Id.) On April 1, 2012, Massachusetts, which had previously opted for federal administration, switched to state administration, although it did not modify the amount of the benefit. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 8.)

This change to state administration was important because, since the SSI program began in 1974, the Commissioner had included the Massachusetts state benefit when quantifying a prevailing claimant's total "past-due benefits" for purposes of determining any attorney's fee. (Id. ¶ 6.) This remains true in those states which have opted for the federal administration of the state benefit. But on June 1, 2012, two months after Massachusetts switched to state administration, the Commissioner stopped including the state benefit when calculating total "past-due benefits." (Id. ¶ 8, 9.) Accordingly, Plaintiff alleges, he and other similarly situated attorneys have not received their "full" fees since that date. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 10.)[1]

On May 6, 2013, Plaintiff, who had represented Fernando Cantres ("Cantres") in a partially favorable SSI adjudication, received a fee award of $4, 079.26, which amount was twenty-five percent of Cantres's federal benefit less the administrative charge. (Id. ¶ 15-20.) The state benefit was not part of this calculation. On May 20, 2013, Plaintiff wrote to the Social Security Administration ("SSA")'s attorney fee branch, arguing that his award should have included an additional $324.85, viz., twenty-five percent of Cantres's $1, 299.40 state benefit which was part of his retroactive SSI award. (Id. ¶ 21, 22.) Although Plaintiff alleges that the attorney fee branch did not itself take definitive action in response, Plaintiff did receive an email from the Office of the Regional Counsel of the SSA stating that "past-due benefits are calculated only [on] the basis of federally administered benefits and do not include state supplementation unless federally administered." (Id. ¶ 23.)


The Commissioner argues that this court lacks both federal-question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and mandamus jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1361. These arguments are discussed in turn.

A. Federal-Question Jurisdiction

First, the Commissioner contends that federal-question jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claim is precluded by 42 U.S.C. § 405(h), which ...

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