United States Department of Labor v. Triplett Committee On Legal Ethics of West Virginia State Bar v. Triplett

Decision Date27 March 1990
Docket NumberNos. 88-1671,88-1688,s. 88-1671
Citation494 U.S. 715,108 L.Ed.2d 701,110 S.Ct. 1428
PartiesUNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, Petitioner, v. George R. TRIPLETT et al. COMMITTEE ON LEGAL ETHICS OF the WEST VIRGINIA STATE BAR, Petitioner v. George R. TRIPLETT et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

The Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972 prohibits attorneys from receiving fees for representing claimants except as approved by petitioner Department of Labor. In implementing this provision, the Department promulgated approval procedures which, inter alia, invalidate all contractual fee arrangements. Respondent Triplett (hereinafter respondent), an attorney, violated the Department's fee scheme when he agreed to represent claimants on a contingent-fee basis and collected fees without the required approval. Petitioner Committee on Legal Ethics of the West Virginia State Bar recommended that he be suspended for these infractions and filed a complaint in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to enforce the sanction. The court denied enforcement, ruling that the scheme was unconstitutional because it effectively denied claimants necessary access to counsel and, alternatively, because it denied them the procedural safeguards provided by the Act.

Held:

1. Both sides have standing. The committee has standing on the basis of its classic interest as a government prosecuting agency in defending the law on which its prosecution is based, and there is therefore no need to inquire into the Department's standing. Respondent has third-party standing by virtue of his claim that enforcement of the fee scheme against him deprives his clients of a due process right to obtain legal representation. See Secretary of State of Maryland v. Joseph H. Munson Co., 467 U.S. 947, 954-958, 104 S.Ct. 2839, 2845-2848, 81 L.Ed.2d 786. ASARCO Inc. v. Kadish, 490 U.S. 605, 109 S.Ct. 2037, 104 L.Ed.2d 696, distinguished. There is no question that such a right is placed at issue here, since at least one of respondent's clients received benefits that the Government was seeking to recover as erroneously paid. Pp. 719-721.

2. The Department's fee limitation scheme does not violate due process. Pp. 721-727.

(a) In light of the Government's obvious and legitimate interest in protecting claimants and others who may be required by the Act to pay fees, the Department's scheme is entitled to a heavy presumption of constitutionality. Respondent must prove that the scheme made attorneys unavailable to his prospective clients at the time he violated the Act. See Walters v. National Assn. of Radiation Survivors, 473 U.S. 305, 105 S.Ct. 3180, 87 L.Ed.2d 220. The "factual record" upon which the state court relied is blatantly insufficient to meet respondent's burden. The only nonanecdotal evidence in the record powerfully suggests that claimants whose chances of success are high enough to attract contingent-fee lawyers have no difficulty finding them. Pp. 721-726.

(b) The state court's alternative holding that the fee scheme violated due process by depriving claimants of statutory procedural safeguards, including the right to counsel, is disposed of by the conclusion that they have not been deprived of their asserted constitutional right to representation. Pp. 726-727.

180 W.Va. 533, 378 S.E.2d 82, reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in Parts I, II-A, III, and IV of which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, and in Part II-B of which REHNQUIST, C.J., and STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 727. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in Part II of which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 728. BRENNAN, J., filed a separate statement, post, p. 736.

Michael R. Dreeben, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Jane Moran, Williamson, W.Va., for respondents.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases call into question the constitutionality of the Department of Labor's administration of that provision of the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972 which prohibits the acceptance of attorney's fees for the representation of claimants, except such fees as are approved by the Department. Respondent Triplett contends that the Secretary of Labor's manner of implementing this restriction violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment because it renders qualified attorneys unavailable and thereby deprives claimants of legal assistance in the prosecution of their claims.

I

The Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972, 83 Stat. 792, as amended, 30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. V), provides federal funds to those who have been totally disabled by pneumoconiosis, a respiratory disease commonly caused by coal mine employment, and to their eligible survivors. See Pittston Coal Group v. Sebben, 488 U.S. 105, 108, 109 S.Ct. 414, 417, 102 L.Ed.2d 408 (1988). The Department of Labor (Department) awards benefits after adjudication by a deputy commissioner, and after review (if requested) by an administrative law judge (ALJ), the Benefits Review Board, and a federal court of appeals. 20 CFR §§ 725.410, 725.419(a), 725.481 (1989); 30 U.S.C. § 932(a) (1982 ed., Supp. V) (incorporating 33 U.S.C. § 921(c) (1982 ed.)).

A claimant may be represented throughout these proceedings by an attorney, 20 CFR §§ 725.362, 725.363(a) (1989), and the Act provides that when the claimant wins a contested case the employer, his insurer, or (in some cases, see 30 U.S.C. § 934 (1982 ed.)) the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund shall pay a "reasonable attorney's fee" to the claimant's lawyer. 30 U.S.C. § 932(a) (incorporating 33 U.S.C. § 928(a) (1982 ed.)). The Act also incorporates, however,

Justice WHITE and Justice BLACKMUN join all but Part II-B of this opinion that provision of the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (LHWCA), 44 Stat. 1438, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 928(d) (1982 ed.), which prohibits an attorney from receiving a fee—whether from the employer, insurer, or Trust Fund, or from the claimant himself—unless approved by the appropriate agency or court. 30 U.S.C. § 932(a) (1982 ed., Supp. V). The Department's regulations invalidate all contractual agreements for fees, see 20 CFR §§ 725.365, 802.203(f) (1989), and the Department will not approve a fee if the claimant is unsuccessful, see Director, OWCP v. Hemingway Transport Inc., 1 BRBS 73, 75 (1974). Once the claimant's compensation order becomes final, 33 U.S.C. § 928(a), the attorney may apply to each tribunal before whom the services were performed, 20 CFR § 725.366(a) (1989), and shall be awarded a fee "reasonably commensurate with the necessary work done," § 725.366(b), taking into account "the quality of the representation, the qualifications of the representative, the complexity of the legal issues involved, the level of proceedings to which the claim was raised, the level at which the representative entered the proceedings, and any other information which may be relevant to the amount of fee requested." Ibid.

Respondent George R. Triplett (hereinafter respondent) violated these restrictions by receiving unapproved fees. He agreed to represent claimants in exchange for 25% of any award obtained, and collected those fees without the required approval. The Committee on Legal Ethics of the West Virginia State Bar initiated a disciplinary action against respondent for these infractions. The committee, after a hearing, recommended a 6-month suspension, and filed a complaint in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to enforce that sanction.

That court denied enforcement. Although respondent had not raised such a contention, it occurred to the court that the Act's restriction on payment of fees, as implemented by the Department, might violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and thus be impermissible as the premise for the disciplinary action. After asking for and receiving supplemental briefing on the issue, it held the Department's implementation of the Act unconstitutional because it "effectively den[ied] claimants necessary access to counsel," and, alternatively, because it "den[ied] qualified claimants the procedural safeguards provided by Congress that are essential to vindicate the right to benefits also granted by Congress." 180 W.Va. 533, 536, 544, 378 S.E.2d 82, 85, 93 (1988). Two justices dissented, finding the factual record upon which the majority relied "woefully inadequate." Id., at 549, 378 S.E.2d, at 98.

After issuing this opinion, the court invited the Department to intervene. The Department did so, supplemented the record, and petitioned for rehearing. The court denied the petition in a brief opinion that found the Department's proffered justifications for the fee limitation system, and its new evidence, unpersuasive. Id., at 547, 378 S.E.2d, at 96.

Both the Department (in No. 88-1671) and the committee (in No. 88-1688) petitioned for certiorari. We granted the petitions. 493 U.S. 807, 110 S.Ct. 48, 107 L.Ed.2d 17 (1989).

II
A.

We deal first with the parties' standing. On petitioners' side, the Committee on Legal Ethics has the classic interest of a government prosecuting agency arguing for the validity of a law upon which its prosecution is based. It has preferred charges against respondent that rest upon his disregard of the fee restrictions administered by the Department; those charges cannot be sustained if the restrictions themselves are unlawful. Since the committee has standing, we need not inquire whether the Department does as well. Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714, 721, 106 S.Ct. 3181, 3185, 92 L.Ed.2d 583 (1986).

B

On respondent's side, Triplett invokes not his own legal rights and interests, but those of the black lung claimants who hired him. Respondent's defense to the disciplinary proceeding is that the fee scheme he is accused of violating contravenes those claimants' due process rights because, by...

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