Bowen v. Galbreath

485 U. S. 74

February 24, 1988

Mary Alice Galbreath successfully sued for $8,000 of extra Social Security money under Title XVI of the program. Her lawyer, Anthony Bartels, asked the court to award him one-fourth of the money for attorney’s fees. When this was awarded, the HHS Secretary protested that attorney’s fees could only be awarded under Title II actions.

Justice Brennan agreed, and wrote for a unanimous Court (Kennedy did not participate). Title II textually allowed for attorney’s fees, and Title XVI did not. A review of legislative history strongly suggested that this difference was intentional, and good public policy. In light of the textual differences, Brennan thought little of the argument that courts would always have an inherent power to award attorney fees. An old case had found such an inherent power, but the Social Security law had been amended so often since then that the will of Congress as to the court’s authority was now perfectly clear. I was glad to see straight textualism carry the day, and heartily support any ruling that cuts down on the rights of money-grubbing attorneys.

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