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Littlefield v. Heckler

argued: April 7, 1987.

WILLIAM F. LITTLEFIELD
v.
MARGARET M. HECKLER, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, APPELLANT



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania - Erie Civil Action No. 83-281.

Author: Sloviter

Opinion OF THE COURT

Before: SLOVITER and BECKER, Circuit Judges, and FISHER, District Judge.*fn*

SLOVITER, Circuit Judge.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services appeals from the order of the district court granting summary judgment to plaintiff William Littlefield and directing that disability benefits be awarded plaintiff in accordance with a recommended decision by the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The district court believed this result was required by our decision in Powell v. Heckler, 789 F.2d 176 (3d Cir. 1986). We conclude that the district court erred in applying the holding of Powell, governing procedural requirements when the Appeals Council reviews an Administrative Law Judge decision on its own motion, to this case, which involves Appeals Council review of an ALJ's recommended decision favorable to the plaintiff following remand from the district court.

I.

Littlefield filed an application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on February 24, 1982, claiming to have been disabled since May 14, 1981 as a result of chronic pain associated with a back injury. Following a hearing, the ALJ found that Littlefield was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Littlefield's request for review, and Littlefield subsequently filed an action in the district court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) challenging the Secretary's decision denying Littlefield disability benefits.

Cross-motions for summary judgment were filed, and the district court, after receiving the Magistrate's recommendation that the case be remanded to the Secretary for more specific findings, including whether Littlefield's subjective complaints of pain in light of other medical evidence indicate pain "so severe and so continuous as to render the Plaintiff incapable of carrying on any occupation suitable to the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity," App. at 39, remanded to the Secretary for analysis and evaluation in accordance with the Magistrate's report and recommendation. App. at 30. This order was not appealed.

On remand, the Appeals Council vacated its denial of Littlefield's request for review and the decision of the ALJ, and remanded the case to an ALJ with orders to conduct proceedings and return a recommended decision to the Appeals Council consistent with the district court's order. The Appeals Council's order further provided that:

The claimant and attorney shall be given the opportunity to file with the Appeals Council, within 20 days from the date of notice of the recommended decision, briefs or other written statements of exceptions and comments as to applicable facts and law. After the 20-day period has expired, the Appeals Council will review the record and issue its decision.

App. at 29. This notice was in form required by 20 C.F.R. § 404.977(c).

On September 27, 1984, the ALJ issued a "Recommended Decision" concluding that Littlefield's pain and limitations are credible, that he is unable to return to his past heavy work, that his combination of pain and medical impairment prevents him from performing even sedentary work, that he has no transferable work skills, that in light of Littlefield's exertional and nonexertional limitations he cannot be expected to make a vocational adjustment to work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy, and that he is therefore entitled to disability benefits. The notice accompanying the recommended decision stated:

You are hereby notified of your right to file briefs or other written statements of exceptions and comments as to applicable facts and law.

After the time granted for filing briefs and written statements has expired, the Appeals Council will review the ...


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