467 U.S. 104
104 S.Ct. 2249
81 L.Ed.2d 88
Margaret M. HECKLER, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Petitioner
Leon S. DAY et al.
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued Dec. 5, 1983.
Decided May 22, 1984.
The Social Security Act (Act) and implementing regulations provide a four-step process for the administrative review and adjudication of disputed disability benefit claims under Title II of the Act. First, a state agency determines whether the claimant has a disability and the date it began or ceased. Second, if the claimant is dissatisfied with that determination, he may request a de novo reconsideration and in some cases a full evidentiary hearing. Third, if the claimant receives an adverse reconsideration determination, he is entitled to an evidentiary hearing and de novo review by an administrative law judge. Finally, if the claimant is dissatisfied with the administrative law judge's decision, he may appeal to the Appeals Council of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Respondents brought an action in Federal District Court on behalf of a statewide class of claimants in Vermont, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from delays encountered in steps two and three that allegedly violated their right under 42 U.S.C. § 405(b) (1976 ed., Supp. V) to a hearing within a reasonable time. Holding that delays of more than 90 days in making reconsideration determinations, and delays of more than 90 days in granting a hearing request, were unreasonable and violated claimants' statutory rights, the District Court issued an injunction in favor of the statewide class requiring the Secretary of HHS in the future to issue reconsideration determinations within 90 days of requests for reconsideration, to conduct hearings within 90 days of request for hearings, and to pay interim benefits to any claimant who did not receive a reconsideration determination or hearing within 180 days of the request for reconsideration or who did not receive a hearing within 90 days of the hearing request. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Held: The District Court's injunction constituted an unwarranted judicial intrusion into the pervasively regulated area of claims adjudication under Title II. The legislative history shows that Congress, in striking the balance between the need for timely disability determinations and the need to ensure the accuracy and consistency of such determinations in the face of heavy workloads and limited agency resources, has concluded that mandatory deadlines for adjudication of disputed disability claims are inconsistent with the Act's primary objectives. In light of Congress' continuing concern that mandatory deadlines would subordinate quality to timeliness, and its recent efforts to ensure the quality of agency determinations, it hardly could have been contemplated that courts should have authority to impose judicially the very deadlines Congress repeatedly has rejected. Pp. 111-118.
685 F.2d 19 (2 Cir.1982), vacated and remanded.
J. Paul McGrath, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.
Richard H. Munzing, Springfield, Vt., for respondents.
Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question presented is the validity of an injunction issued on behalf of a statewide class that requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to adjudicate all future disputed disability claims under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., according to judicially established deadlines and to pay interim benefits in all cases of noncompliance with those deadlines.
* Title II of the Social Security Act (Act) was passed in 1935. 49 Stat. 622, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. Among other things, it provides for the payment of disability insurance benefits to those whose disability prevents them from pursuing gainful employment. 42 U.S.C. § 423.1 Disability benefits also are payable under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program established by Title XVI of the Act, 76 Stat. 197, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1381. The disability programs administered under Titles II and XVI "are of a size and extent difficult to comprehend." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1426, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Approximately two million disability claims were filed under these two Titles in fiscal year 1983.2 Over 320,000 of these claims must be heard by some 800 administrative law judges each year.3 To facilitate the orderly and sympathetic administration of the disability program of Title II, the Secretary and Congress have established an unusually protective four-step process for the review and adjudication of disputed claims. First, a state agency determines whether the claimant has a disability and the date the disability began or ceased.4 42 U.S.C. § 421(a); 20 CFR § 404.1503 (1983). Second, if the claimant is dissatisfied with that determination, he may request reconsideration of the determination. This involves a de novo reconsideration of the disability claim by the state agency, and in some cases a full evidentiary hearing. §§ 404.907-404.921. Additional evidence may be submitted at this stage, either on the request of the claimant or by order of the agency. Third, if the claimant receives an adverse reconsideration determination, he is entitled by statute to an evidentiary hearing and to a de novo review by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). 42 U.S.C. § 405(b); 20 CFR §§ 404.929-404.961 (1983). Finally, if the claimant is dissatisfied with the decision of the ALJ, he may take an appeal to the Appeals Council of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).5 §§ 404.967-404.983. These four steps exhaust the claimant's administrative remedies. Thereafter, he may seek judicial review in federal district court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
In this class action, the named plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief from delays encountered in steps two and three above. The action was initiated by Leon Day in November 1978 after his disability benefits were terminated and he suffered substantial delays in obtaining a reconsideration determination and in securing a hearing before an ALJ.6 After suffering similar delays, Amedie Maurais intervened in the action.7 On June 14, 1979, the District Court certified a statewide class consisting of:
"All present and future Vermont residents seeking to secure Social Security disability benefits who, following an initial determination by the defendant that no disability exists, experience an unreasonable delay in the scheduling of and/or issuance of decisions in reconsiderations and fair hearings." App. to Pet. for Cert. 12a, n. 1.