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Walsh v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 14, 2019

JOELLYN M. WALSH, Plaintiff
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1]Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          Saporito Magistrate Judge

          MEMORANDUM

          JAMES M. MUNLEY JUDGE

         Before the court for disposition is Magistrate Judge Joseph F. Saporito, Jr.'s report and recommendation (hereinafter “R&R”) regarding Plaintiff Joellyn M. Walsh's social security appeal. The R&R suggests vacating the Commissioner of Social Security's decision and remanding the case for a rehearing before a different Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter “ALJ”). The defendant has filed objections to the R&R and the matter is ripe for disposition.

         Background

          Plaintiff filed a claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on August 10, 2011. (Doc. 8, Administrative Record (hereinafter “R.”) at 126-27, 143). Plaintiff claims an inability to work due to seronegative rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, anxiety and attention deficit disorder. (R. at 417). The Commissioner denied her review initially, and also denied it after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter “ALJ”). Plaintiff then appealed the denial of benefits to this court. (Doc. 1, Compl.).

         The case was assigned to Magistrate Judge Saporito for the issuance of an R&R. Judge Saporito indicates that the presiding ALJ had not been properly appointed by the defendant and that the commissioner's final decision should be reversed and remanded to the agency for a hearing before a properly appointed ALJ. The defendant filed objections to the R&R bringing the case to its present posture.

         Jurisdiction

          The court has federal question jurisdiction over this Social Security Administration appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing under paragraph (1) shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title.”); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow. Such action shall be brought in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides, or has her principal place of business....”).

         Standard of review

          In disposing of objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court must make a de novo determination of those portions of the report against which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c); see also Sullivan v. Cuyler, 723 F.2d 1077, 1085 (3d Cir. 1983). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 877 (3d Cir. 1987). The district court judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. Id.

         Discussion

          The dispositive issue plaintiff raises on appeal is whether the ALJ who heard her case was properly appointed under the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution, U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 2. Plaintiff claims that the ALJ was not constitutionally appointed, and therefore, the case should be remanded for a new hearing before a properly appointed ALJ.

         The United States Supreme Court in Lucia v. S.E.C. addressed the status of ALJs as they are used by the Security and Exchange Commission. - - U.S. - -, 138 S.Ct. 2044 (2018). The Court examined whether ALJs who preside over enforcement proceedings are “Officers of the United States” within the meaning of the Constitution's Appointments Clause. If they are Officers of the United States under the Appointments Clause, rather than simply employees, the ALJs must be appointed by the President, a court of law or a department head. Id. at 2051. The Court concluded that the ALJs are in fact “officers” who must be appointed pursuant to the Constitution. Id. at 2055. Some ALJs were not properly appointed. If a party had a hearing before an improperly appointed ALJ, he is entitled to a new hearing before a properly appointed ALJ if he makes a timely challenge. Id.

         Although, Lucia dealt with ALJs in the Securities and Exchange Commission, its holding has been applied by courts to ALJs who preside over social security benefit hearings. On July 16, 2018, the then Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Nancy Berryhill, ratified the appointment of the ALJs ...


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