United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
Timothy R. Rice U.S. Magistrate Judge.
notion that claims of legal error must be preserved at trial
for appellate review is a bedrock tenet of our legal system.
See, e.g., Judiciary Act § 25, 1 Stat 86
(“no other error shall be assigned or regarded as a
ground of reversal . . . than such as appears on the face of
the record”); Crowell v. Randell, 35 U.S. 368,
391 (1836) (if it does not appear on the record that an issue
has been raised and decided in the lower court,
“appellate jurisdiction fails”). Not only does it
afford the presiding jurist an opportunity to prevent error,
it arms a reviewing court with a full evidentiary and legal
record to resolve appellate challenges. See Hormel v.
Helvering, 312 U.S. 552, 556 (1941) (it is
“essential” for litigants to have an opportunity
to offer all relevant evidence at the trial level); see
also Fed.R.Evid. 103(a), Adv. Comm. Notes (discussing
the requirements for claiming legal error with respect to
admission or exclusion of evidence). The justification for a
timely challenge loses force, however, when raising such a
claim would be futile and not achieve the intended goal of
getting things right in the first place.
case presents such a dilemma.
Dawn McWilliams for the first time contends the presiding
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) was improperly
appointed and therefore lacked legal authority to decide her
case.See Pl. Br. (doc. 12) at 2-3
(citing Lucia v. S.E.C., 138 S.Ct. 2044, 2055 (2018)
(holding ALJs employed by the Securities and Exchange
Commission (“SEC”) were inferior officers subject
to the Appointments Clause of the United States
Constitution)). She concedes she failed to present her claim
for error before the ALJ, which has prompted the Commissioner
to seek summary denial of the Lucia claim because it
was not timely raised and is nonjurisdictional. See
Def. Resp. (doc. 13) at 4-14 (citing Lucia, 138
S.Ct. at 2045 (“one who makes a timely challenge to the
constitutional validity of the appointment of an officer who
adjudicates his case is entitled to relief”) (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted)).
McWilliams's Appointments Clause objection is
nonjurisdictional, her claim merits consideration even though
not raised below because it impacts the validity of the
underlying proceeding, especially in the unique inquisitorial
context of Social Security Administration (“SSA”)
proceedings. Further, McWilliams raised her objection at the
earliest possible opportunity after Lucia was
decided, and was not required to preserve her Lucia
claim by raising it at the initial administrative level of
review. In any event, it would have been futile for
McWilliams to raise her claim before the ALJ because the ALJ
was powerless to resolve it.
case is remanded to a different, constitutionally appointed
ALJ. Since the ALJ's decision was a nullity based on
Lucia, I need not address the merits of her
additional claims because a new ALJ must conduct a de
novo review on remand.
applied for Disability Insurance Benefits on April 2, 2015,
alleging a disability onset date of March 27, 2015. R. at 91.
Following a hearing, an ALJ denied McWilliams's claim on
December 14, 2017. Id. at 14-16. Applying the
five-step sequential analysis, see 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), the ALJ found McWilliams was not
disabled because she could perform jobs available in the
national economy, R. at 25.
Appeals Council denied McWilliams's request for review,
id. at 1-3, and McWilliams filed this case,
Compl. (doc. 2).
ALJ's Authority to Decide the Case
2012, an SEC ALJ found Lucia had violated certain securities
laws. Lucia, 138 S.Ct. at 2049. On appeal to the
SEC, Lucia argued the ALJ was not properly appointed under
the Appointments Clause because the ALJ was appointed by SEC
staff members rather than the SEC. Id.; see
also U.S. Const., art. II, § 2, cl. 2 (inferior
officers must be appointed by “the President, ”
“Courts of Law, ” or “Heads of
Departments”); Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1,
126 (1976) (per curiam) (inferior officers are those
individuals who “exercise significant authority
pursuant to the laws of the United States”).
both the SEC and the United States Court of Appeals for the
D.C. Circuit rejected Lucia's argument, the
Supreme Court reversed, holding that SEC ALJs are inferior
officers subject to the Appointments Clause. Lucia,
138 S.Ct. at 2049, 2055. The Court also held Lucia's
argument was “timely” because it had been raised
“before the Commission and . . . in the Court of
Appeals and [the Supreme] Court.” Id.
(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The Court
concluded Lucia was entitled to a new hearing before a
different, constitutionally appointed ALJ. Id.
Lucia decided the constitutional status of only SEC
ALJs, the decision implicated the status of ALJs in other
agencies, including the more than 1, 600 ALJs at the SSA.
See Br. of Nat'l Org. of Soc. Sec.
Claimants' Reps., Lucia v. S.E.C., 138 S.Ct.
2044 (No. 17-130) (April 2, 2018), at *1-2; see also
Bandimere v. S.E.C., 844 F.3d 1168, 1200 (10th Cir.
2016), cert. denied sub nom, 138 S.Ct. 2706 (2018)
(McKay, J., dissenting) (stating there is no
“meaningful difference between SEC ALJs and SSA ALJs
under the majority's [decision]”). Unlike the SEC
which features an adversarial system, however, SSA ALJs
differ in significant respects.
Nature of SSA Disability Claims Process
ALJs oversee hearings to determine a claimant's
eligibility for benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(b)(1). If the
claimant receives an unfavorable decision from the ALJ, she
may request review by the Appeals Council, 20 C.F.R. §