United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
K. CARACAPPA UNITED STATES CHIEF MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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
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 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.
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”).
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
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.
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.
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
STAY AND ABEYANCE
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.
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
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.
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 ...