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U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Department of Labor v. Triplett, 494 U.S. 715 (1990)


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, 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.


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. Triplett 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, 467 U. S. 964-958. ASARCO Inc. v. Kadish, 490 U. S. 605, distinguished. There is no question that such a right is placed at issue here, since at least one of Triplett's clients received benefits that the Government was seeking to recover as erroneously paid. Pp. 494 U. S. 719-721.

2. The Department's fee limitation scheme does not violate due process. Pp. 494 U. S. 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

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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. 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. 494 U. S. 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. 494 U. S. 726-727.

___ W.Va. ___, 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. 494 U. S. 727. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in Part II of which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 494 U. S. 728. BRENNAN, J., filed a separate statement, post, p. 494 U. S. 736.

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