Supreme Court hears arguments on foreign states service process, Social Security attorney’s fee caps
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Supreme Court hears arguments on foreign states service process, Social Security attorney’s fee caps

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases Wednesday regarding service processes for foreign states under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and attorney’s fee caps for lawyers representing clients in Social Security benefit cases.

In Republic of Sudan v. Harrison, the petitioner is appealing a decision from the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit holding that a plaintiff suing a foreign state can serve the Head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the foreign state’s US embassy.

Yemen filed suit in the DC district court for a 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Yemen, alleging Sudan’s material support to Al-Qaeda. The summons and complaint were mailed to the Sudanese embassy in Washington, DC, addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sudan with a received returned receipt. Not receiving a reply from Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, a district court entered a default judgement against Sudan.

On appeal, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding the interpretation of FSIA’s 28 USC § 1608(a)(3) “addressed and dispatched” language because there was no record that Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs ever received the original summons and complaint. The petitioner argued whether the language of the statute included a US embassy where the Sudanese Foreign Affairs Minister visits on occasion, which might lead to due process concerns as asserted by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

A decision in this case would determine the statute’s meaning and whether it conflicts with US obligations under the Vienna Convention to preserve mission inviolability. Kannon Shanmugan, arguing for the respondents, contends that an embassy is an extension of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and believes the Vienna Convention does not prohibit service by mail at an embassy.

In the Culberston v. Berryhill oral arguments, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the scope of the current federally imposed 25 percent cap on attorney’s fees in Social Security cases.

This case will resolve a current split among the federal courts of appeals as to whether the Social Security Act requires a cumulative cap on attorney’s fees of 25 percent of owed benefits for representation before both the court and the Social Security Administration, or whether instead the 25 percent cap applies separately to representation before the court.

Amy Weil, the court-appointed amicus curiae, defended the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit’s decision for the aggregate 25 percent cap, alleging that attorneys would be incentivized to sue their clients for fees which is contrary to the Social Security Act’s purpose, which is to protect a source of income.

Daniel Ortiz, arguing on behalf of Culbertson, contended that reversing the Eleventh Circuit’s decision could provide a less restrictive cap on legal fees and may help people obtain legal representation in Social Security cases more easily and receive more Social Security benefits.