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Barnett v. Califano

decided: June 29, 1978.


Appeal from orders of the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, Coffrin, J., granting summary judgment to Supplemental Security Income disability claimants in suit to enjoin unreasonable delays in administrative hearing process. Affirmed as modified.

Kaufman, Chief Judge, Feinberg, Circuit Judge, and Werker, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Feinberg

FEINBERG, Circuit Judge:

The Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare appeals from various orders of the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, Albert W. Coffrin, J., granting summary judgment in this class action suit brought by disability claimants under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-85.*fn1 This appeal, like our recent decision in White v. Mathews, 559 F.2d 852 (2d Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 435 U.S. 908, 98 S. Ct. 1458, 55 L. Ed. 2d 500, 46 U.S.L.W. 3539 (1978), concerns "the glacial pace at which the Social Security Administration (SSA) has adjudicated claims to disability payments." Id. at 854. Since we find appellant's attempts to distinguish that case unpersuasive, the orders of the district court are, with one significant modification, affirmed.


Title XVI, as promulgated in 1972, was "designed to provide financial assistance to needy people who have reached age 65 or are blind or are disabled. . . ." H.R. Rep. No. 92-231, 92d Cong., 1st Sess. 25 (1971), reprinted in [1972] U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News pp. 4989, 5012. The application procedure for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI is virtually identical to that involved in obtaining the Title II benefits at issue in White v. Mathews, supra, 559 F.2d at 854-55. Thus, an SSI disability claimant must establish both his financial eligibility and his income impairing disability under the applicable federal standards. See generally 20 C.F.R. Part 416. The initial determination of disability is made by the appropriate state agency in accordance with the Secretary's regulations.*fn2 See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). Thereafter, the SSA may review the information filed by the applicant and revise the state's decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). A claimant who still feels aggrieved is then entitled to a full evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c); 20 C.F.R. § 416.1425-57. The hearing officer's decision may be further reviewed by the Appeals Council of the SSA, see 20 C.F.R. § 416.1458-61, and the final determination of the SSA is subject to judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383 (c)(3), 405(g).*fn3

Appellees are all disability claimants who were originally denied SSI benefits and were subsequently unable to obtain administrative hearings without substantial delays despite their timely requests for such hearings. For example, appellee Barnett filed for SSI benefits in February 1974. That request was initially denied on March 22, 1974 and was again denied upon reconsideration on May 31, 1974. Barnett requested a hearing in June 1974. When no hearing had been granted by November of that year, Barnett and others filed this suit. Barnett eventually received a hearing in December 1974, which resulted in the reversal of the prior administrative decisions denying him SSI benefits.

The complaint alleged that protracted delays in obtaining hearings, such as those suffered by Barnett, violated appellees' right to due process and also their statutory rights under the Social Security and Administrative Procedure Acts. In May 1975, Judge Coffrin held that mandamus jurisdiction existed over this action, and in January 1976 the judge granted class certification.*fn4 In February 1977, the district court found that SSI disability claimants in Vermont typically waited 6 to 7 months for a hearing with delays as long as 13 months.*fn5 The district judge's thorough opinion concluded that such delays denied appellees the "reasonable . . . opportunity for a hearing" guaranteed by Title XVI, 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(1), and also ran afoul of the pertinent provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act. See 5 U.S.C. §§ 555(b), 706(1).*fn6 He therefore ordered appellant on or before July 1, 1977 to reduce "the maximum delay between the proper filing of a petition for a hearing . . . and the scheduling and holding of such hearing to 120 days and by December 31, 1977 . . . [to] have further reduced such maximum delay to 90 days." Judge Coffrin further ordered that non-refundable benefits be paid to any claimant not receiving such a timely hearing unless the delay was attributable to certain narrow exceptions.*fn7 This appeal followed.


At the outset, we note that appellant argues that no jurisdiction exists for this action and that the class was improperly certified. While we do not think that these arguments are frivolous, the same contentions were rejected by our recent opinion in White v. Mathews, supra, 559 F.2d at 855-56, 858. Finding no reason to reconsider those holdings here, we conclude that the district court had mandamus jurisdiction to hear this case, see 28 U.S.C. § 1361, and that it correctly certified the class of SSI disability claimants.

The litigants quite properly focus their attention on White v. Mathews, supra. We there held that administrative hearing delays similar to those challenged here*fn8 did not constitute a "reasonable . . . opportunity for a hearing" within the meaning of section 205(b) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(b) (Title II). Appellees urge that White is therefore dispositive since Title XVI also guarantees a "reasonable . . . opportunity for a [disability] hearing." See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(1), quoted in note 3 supra. We agree with appellees, at least insofar as appellant generally raises anew claims that were made in White. Thus, we again reject the Secretary's argument that the district court erred in specifying time limits for SSI disability hearings because Congress, which has acted to alleviate the hearing delay problem,*fn9 has chosen not to quantify a reasonable time period. As we stated in White, "Congress did not abandon the requirement of reasonableness, and the decision not to impose precise limits should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the delays." 559 F.2d at 859-60. Similarly, while we are still "sympathetic to the administrative problems that beset the SSA," we reiterate our conclusion that such difficulties do not justify the denial of a "reasonable . . . opportunity for a hearing." See id. at 859. This is especially true when, as typified by Barnett's own case history, such hearings often correct erroneous determinations denying SSI benefits to penurious disability claimants.*fn10 However, appellant offers several specific reasons why White should not be controlling here, and we turn to these contentions.

First, appellant points out that unlike Title II, Title XVI has prescribed a 90-day time limit for all non-disability determinations. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(2), quoted in note 3 supra. However, statutory designation of a time within which non-disability claims must be decided does not preclude a district court from fixing a time for the holding of disability hearings, which Congress requires to be conducted with reasonable dispatch. The enactment of section 1383(c)(2) cannot be read as a legislative abandonment of the reasonable opportunity requirement contemporaneously approved in section 1383(c)(1). Moreover, the requirement of section 1383(c)(2) that non-disability cases be determined within 90 days indicates the fairness of Judge Coffrin's less burdensome order mandating that disability cases be heard, but not decided, within 90 days.

The Secretary also claims that White is distinguishable because that case involved Title II claimants, while this one concerns Title XVI claimants. However, both programs provide benefits for the disabled -- a group defined almost exactly alike by Titles II and XVI. Compare 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) with id. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Furthermore, as between the two groups of similarly beset beneficiaries, SSI disability claimants, who are by definition impoverished and thus less likely to have alternate sources of sustenance, see Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 340-43, 47 L. Ed. 2d 18, 96 S. Ct. 893 (1976), are in greater need of prompt hearings. Cf. id. at 342-43 n.27 (Title XVI beneficiaries, unlike their Title II counterparts, are entitled to pretermination hearings.)*fn11 Appellant also contends that White is not controlling because Title II applicants have contributed to the Social Security System, which pays their benefits, and thus have some sort of quasi-contractual claim to them. But in defining what constituted a reasonable opportunity to be heard under the statute, the White court focused upon the "immediate and often severe hardships" accompanying disability and not the nature of the right to the disability benefits. See 559 F.2d at 858.

Appellant also argues that intervening administrative developments in Vermont particularly and in the nation generally suggest that a White-type order is improper here. However, the efforts made in Vermont parallel those in Connecticut that we found in White to be commendable but inadequate. See id. at 859. Appellant also points to the flurry of similar orders concerning hearing delays entered against the Secretary in various parts of the country. See, e.g., Caswell v. Califano, 435 F. Supp. 127 (D. Me. 1977), appeal docketed, No. 77-1514 (1st Cir. Nov. 30, 1977). Such orders, if anything, would seem to support our conclusion in White. But appellant responds that such decisions exacerbate rather than solve the hearing delay problem. Appellant's point is that SSA has thus far been able to meet various court-imposed timetables only by shifting personnel around, that its resources are limited, and that as the number of such orders grows it "will simply be unable to comply with them. . . ." We do not minimize the difficult situation in which SSA finds itself, and we repeat our emphasis in White that the solution for the problem may well ultimately depend upon ...

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