United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
K. CARACAPPA, UNITED STATES CHIEF MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Stephen Joseph Wojciechowski brought this action under 42
U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying plaintiff's claim
for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under
Title II of the Act. In accordance with 28 U.S.C.
§636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 72, and Local Rule 72.1, consent
to the exercise of jurisdiction by a Magistrate Judge has
before this court are plaintiff's request for review, the
Commissioner's response, and plaintiff's reply. The
Commissioner moved to stay the litigation pending the outcome
of two cases presently before the Third Circuit Court of
Appeals. For the reasons set forth below, we find that the
Commissioner's Motion for Stay be DENIED and that
plaintiff's request for review be GRANTED.
Plaintiff's case is remanded to a different,
constitutionally appointed ALJ. Since the ALJ's decision
was a nullity based on Lucia, we do not address the
merits of petitioner's additional claims because a new
ALJ must conduct a de novo review on remand.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
is a fifty-seven-year old male born on July 17, 1962. (Tr.
28). Plaintiff has least a high school education and past
relevant work as a laborer and facilities maintenance. (Tr.
February 12, 2015, plaintiff filed an application for DIB.
(Tr. 102-103). Plaintiff's alleged disability onset date
was June 14, 2013. (Tr. 128). Plaintiff's application for
DIB was denied at the state level on February 14, 2014. (Tr.
12). Plaintiff's application for SSI was denied at the
state level on April 8, 2015. (Tr. 50-55). Plaintiff
subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
March 23, 2017, ALJ Stephen Bosch held a hearing. (Tr.
25-49). The ALJ issued an opinion on August 24, 2017, finding
plaintiff not disabled under the Act from October 31, 2007
through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 9-24).
Plaintiff filed a request for review and on July 11, 2018 the
Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review,
making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff appealed that decision to
September 10, 2018, plaintiff initiated the present action.
Plaintiff argues that substantial evidence does not support
the ALJ's decision and, for the first time, plaintiff
contends the presiding ALJ was improperly appointed and
therefore lacked legal authority to decide plaintiff's
case. Pl. Br. at 13-16. (citing Lucia v. S.E.C., 138
S.Ct. 2044, 2055 (2018) (holding that ALJs employed by the
Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) were
inferior officers subject to the Appointments Clause of the
United State Constitution and that a party who makes a timely
challenge to the constitutional validity of the appointment
of the officer who adjudicates his or her case is entitled to
relief). Plaintiff concedes that he failed to present this
Appointments Clause claim before the ALJ and the Appeals
Council. Id. at 14. The Commissioner responds that
plaintiff's Appointments Clause claim should be dismissed
because it was not timely raised by plaintiff during the
Administrative Process. Def. Resp. at 15-24.
plaintiff initiated the present action, district court judges
in this district have remanded identical Appointments Clause
claims, while other district court judges in this district
have declined to remand. Appointments Clause claims have also
been raised in other districts. The Middle District of
Pennsylvania issued two decisions on March 4, 2019, finding
that the plaintiffs had not waived their Appointment Clause
claims by failing to raise the claim during the
administrative process. See Bizarre v. Berryhill,
364 F.Supp.3d 418 (M.D. Pa. 2019); Cirko v.
Berryhill, No. 1:17-CV-680, 2019 WL 1014195 (M.D. Pa.
Mar. 4, 2019). On April 5, 2019, the Commissioner appealed
the Middle District decisions in Bizarre and
Cirko to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. On June
21, 2019, the Commissioner moved to stay all further
proceedings in this case pending the Third Circuit's
reasons discussed below, we find that the ALJ was not
appointed in accordance with constitutional requirements and
petitioner was not required to preserve his Lucia
objection at the initial administrative level of review.
Additionally, it would have been futile for petitioner to
raise his Appointments Clause objection before the ALJ. We
also find that the Commissioner's motion for a stay is
STAY AND ABEYANCE
threshold matter, this court must resolve the
Commissioner's motion to stay before proceeding.
Plaintiff argues that he would be harmed if a stay were
granted because the stay would be indefinite and at a minimum
add years to his case. See Pl. Resp. to Motion to
Stay, Doc. 14. The Commissioner argues that a stay is
appropriate because the very same Appointments Clause claim
is currently pending before the Third Circuit Court of
Appeals, consequently granting a stay in this matter will
promote judicial efficiency and consistency. Def. Motion to
Stay, Doc. 21, at 2. The Commissioner also contends that this
court cannot avoid plaintiff's Appointment Clause claim,
even if this court were to remand on other grounds, because
the resolution of the Appointment Clause claim will dictate
whether plaintiff's case will be heard before the same
ALJ or need to be heard before a different ALJ. Id.
at 2-3. For the following reasons we find that the
Commissioner's Motion for Stay is denied.
district court's power to stay a proceeding “is
incidental to the power inherent in every court to dispose of
cases so as to promote their fair and efficient
adjudication.” U.S. v. Breyer, 41 F.3d 884,
893 (3d Cir.1994) (citing Gold v. Johns-Manville Sales
Corp., 723 F.2d 1068, 1077 (3d Cir.1983)). This power to
stay proceedings “calls for the exercise of judgment,
which must weigh competing interests and maintain an even
balance.” Cheyney State College Faculty v.
Hufstedler, 703 F.2d 732, 737-38 (3d Cir. 1983)
(quoting Landis v. North American Co., 299 U.S. 248,
legal principles that guide this court have been distilled
into four factors: “(1) whether the stay applicant has
made a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the
merits; (2) whether the applicant will be irreparably injured
absent a stay; (3) whether issuance of the stay will
substantially injure the other parties interested in the
proceeding; and (4) where the public interest lies.”
Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U.S. 770, 776 (1987).
Thus, under the district court's power to stay a
proceeding, the court must weigh the competing interests of
the parties. The party seeking the stay must demonstrate
“a clear case of hardship or inequity, if there is even
a fair possibility that the stay would work damage on another
party.” Gold, 723 F.2d at 1075- 76.
present case, plaintiff has demonstrated a clear case of
hardship. Not only is plaintiff undeniably ill, but plaintiff
has also faced significant wait times for a final decision
regarding benefits, which he is potentially entitled to.
Before even proceeding to this court, plaintiff waited a
significant amount of time for his appeal to be heard before
an ALJ, and if plaintiff's case is remanded, plaintiff
will again face significant wait time until his case is
reheard by a properly appointed ALJ. Plaintiff also faced
additional wait time before this court. Thus, to make
plaintiff wait again, when the Third Circuit may not render a
final decision for several months if not more, presents a
clear case of hardship. On the other hand, the Commissioner
will not face a significant hardship if this case moves
forward because the Commissioner has already submitted the
required briefing in this matter. We believe, the resources
the Commissioner will be required to expend in order to
litigate this case on remand are minimal and do not
constitute a hardship.
interests of judicial economy are also not furthered
sufficiently to outweigh plaintiff's hardship. The
Supreme Court has recognized that “[i]n the exercise of
its sound discretion, a court may hold one lawsuit in
abeyance to abide the outcome of another which may
substantially affect it or be dispositive of the
issues.” Stokes v. RealPage, Inc., CV 15-1520,
2016 WL 9711699, at *1 n.1 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 25, 2016) (citing
Am. Life Ins. Co. v. Stewart, 300 U.S. 203, 215
(1937)). However, “[o]nly in rare circumstances will a
litigant in one case be compelled to stand aside while a
litigant in another settles the rule of law that will define
the rights of both.” Landis v. N. Am. Co., 299
U.S. 248, 255 (1936). Here, although plaintiffs are already
facing inconsistent results among judges, two factors weight
strongly against a stay. First, the strong merits of
plaintiff's claim, which are discussed in the following
section. Second, the hardship plaintiff will face if a stay
is granted and plaintiff is forced to continue waiting for
the final disposition ...