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Risser v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 6, 2019

ADRIANA RISSER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          CHAD F. KENNEY, J.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Adriana Risser appeals the decision of the administrative law judge ("ALJ") denying Plaintiffs claim for disability insurance benefits. ECF No. 2. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Before the Court are Plaintiffs Complaint, Defendant's Answer, and the parties' respective briefs in support of and in opposition thereto. ECF Nos. 2, 11, 12 & 16.

         II. Background

         On February 29, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning September 26, 2015. ECF No. 10-2 at p. 14. Plaintiffs claim was initially denied on June 17, 2016, and she thereafter filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ on July 8, 2016. Id. The ALJ convened a hearing on October 4, 2017. Id. In a written decision dated December 21, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs application for benefits. Id. at p. 11. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Counsel on February 20, 2018. ECF No. 10-2 at p. 6. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on September 19, 2018. ECF No. 10-2 at p. 2. The ALJ's decision accordingly stands as the "final decision" of the Commissioner for purposes of judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; see also, ECF No. 10-2 at p. 2.

         Plaintiff commenced this action on November 2, 2018, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). ECF No. 2. Specifically, Plaintiff contends the following: 1) the case was improperly adjudicated by an ALJ who was not constitutionally appointed; 2) the ALJ did not reasonably explain his assessment of Plaintiff s residual functional capacity; 3) the ALJ did not reasonably explain his rejection of Plaintiff s testimony; and 4) the ALJ did not provide a legally acceptable rationale for finding Plaintiff not disabled.

         For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision will be vacated, and this matter will be remanded to the Commissioner with instructions to issue a new decision in accordance with the accompanying Order. The new decision shall be conducted by an ALJ who has been properly appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.

         III. Standard of Review

         In reviewing the ALJ's decision to deny benefits, the Court is bound by the ALJ's factual determinations, if they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence 'does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988)). "The presence of evidence in the record that supports a contrary conclusion does not undermine the Commissioner's decision so long as the record provides substantial support for that decision." Malloy v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 306 Fed.Appx. 761, 764 (3d Cir. 2009).

         The Court shall review de novo the ALJ's rulings of law. Gonzalez v. Berryhill, 340 F.Supp.3d 424, 427 (E.D. Pa. 2018) (citing Krysztoforski v. Chater, 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995)).

         IV. Discussion

         Relying upon the Supreme Court's decision in Lucia v. S.E.C., 138 S.Ct. 2044, 2049 (2018), Plaintiff seeks a remand of her case to the Social Security Administration for a new hearing on the ground that the ALJ who presided over her claim is an inferior officer under the Appointments Clause and was not constitutionally appointed consistent with that provision. ECF No. 12 at p. 2-3. The plaintiff in Lucia argued that his administrative proceedings before the Securities and Exchange Commission were invalid because the presiding ALJ was not appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause. The Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiff, concluding that the SEC's ALJs are "inferior officers" of the United States who must be properly appointed. Lucia, 138 S.Ct. at 2049, 2051-54. In determining a remedy, the Court relied on Ryder v. United States, 515 U.S. 177 (1995): '"one who makes a timely challenge to the constitutional validity of the appointment of an officer who adjudicates his case' is entitled to relief." Lucia, 138 S.Ct. at 2055 (quoting Ryder, 515 U.S. at 182-83). The Court noted that the plaintiff, having raised the Appointments Clause objections before the SEC and having reasserted it before the court of appeals and the Supreme Court, had made "just such a timely challenge," and remanded the matter for a rehearing before a new, constitutionally appointed ALJ. Id.

         Following Lucia, the President signed an executive order that amended the process of future ALJ appointments. Exec. Order No. 13, 843, 83 Fed. Reg. 32755 (July 10, 2018). On July 16, 2018, the Acting Commissioner of the SSA ratified the appointments of the SSA ALJs and approved their appointments. Soc. Sec. Admin., EM-18003 REV 2, Important Information Regarding Possible Challenges to the Appointment of Administrative Law Judges in SSA 's Administrative Process-Update (effective date 8/6/18).

         In this case, the Commissioner does not dispute that the SSA's ALJs are inferior officers or that the ALJ in this case was not appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause. ECF No. 16 at p. 4, n.l. Rather, the Commissioner argues that Plaintiffs failure to assert a challenge to the ALJ's appointment before the SSA at any point in the administrative proceedings, whether before the ALJ or the Appeals Council, forfeited her Appointments Clause claim, thus barring its consideration by this Court. ECF No. 16 at p. 3. In other ...


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