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Robinson v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 27, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Leah Claudia Robinson 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”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI) under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act (“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 been established.

         Presently 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.


         Plaintiff is a forty-year-old woman born on September 21, 1978. (Tr. 157). Plaintiff has a high school education and past relevant work as a file clerk, data entry clerk, and mail clerk. (Tr. 48, 19).

         On April 8, 2016, plaintiff filed an applications for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of September 29, 2015. (Tr. 157-168). Plaintiff's applications for DIB and SSI was denied at the state level on June 23, 2016. (Tr. 102-111). Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         On May 25, 2018, ALJ Jennifer M. Lash held a hearing. (Tr. 40-73). The ALJ issued an opinion on August 31, 2018, finding plaintiff not disabled under the Act, since September 9, 2015, through the date of the decision. (Tr. 7-25). Plaintiff filed a request for review and on November 9, 2018 the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff appealed that decision to this court.

         On January 4, 2019, 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 3 (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). 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 17-29.

         Since 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.

         For the reasons discussed below, we find that the ALJ was not appointed in accordance with constitutional requirements and plaintiff was not required to preserve her Lucia objection at the initial administrative level of review. Additionally, it would have been futile for petitioner to raise her Appointments Clause objection before the ALJ. We also find that the Commissioner's motion for a stay is denied.


         As a threshold matter, this court must resolve the Commissioner's Motion to stay before proceeding. The Commissioner argues that a stay is appropriate because the very same Appointments Clause claim is currently pending before the Third Circuit Court, therefore, granting a stay in this matter will promote judicial efficiency and consistency. Def. Motion for Stay, Doc. 21. 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 for de novo review. Id. For the following reasons we find that the Commissioner's Motion for Stay is denied.

         The 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, 254-55 (1936)). The 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.

         In the present case, plaintiff has demonstrated a clear case of hardship. Not only does plaintiff suffer from severe impairments, but plaintiff has also faced significant wait times to receive a final decision regarding benefits, which plaintiff is potentially entitled to. Before appealing to this court, plaintiff waited a significant time for her appeal to be heard before an ALJ, and if plaintiff's case is remanded, plaintiff will again face a significant wait time until her case is reheard by a properly appointed ALJ. Additionally, plaintiff has 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 longer, 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 most required briefing, the only documents the Commissioner may choose to file moving forward is Objections to this Report and Recommendation. 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.

         The 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 ...

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