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Dixon v. Heckler

March 7, 1986

DAVID DIXON, RICARDO RAMIREZ, OPHELIA CASEY, DOMINGA CARRASQUILLO, JOANNE LOCKETT, EULALIA TEREZ, CARMEN FELICIANO, AND TOMASINA GONZALEZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHER SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES, AND THE STATE OF NEW YORK AND CESAR PERALES, AS COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, PLAINTIFFS-INTERVENORS-APPELLEES,
v.
MARGARET M. HECKLER, AS SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Consolidated appeals from orders of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Morris E. Lasker, Judge, see 589 F. Supp. 1494 (1984), preliminarily enjoining the Secretary of Health and Human Services from denying or terminating disability benefits on the basis of "severity regulations" set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1521, 416.920(c), and 416.921. Affirmed.

Author: Kearse

Before: OAKES, KEARSE, and PIERCE, Circuit Judges.

KEARSE, Circuit Judge:

The Secretary of Health and Human Services ("Secretary") appeals from orders of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Morris E. Lasker, Judge, granting and refusing to vacate a preliminary injunction that, inter alia, forbids the Secretary to deny or terminate disability benefits on the basis of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1521, 416.920(c), and 416.921 (1984), the so-called "severity regulations" used by the Secretary in evaluating claims for disability benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance program established by Title II of the Social Security Act, as amended (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. 401 et seq. (1982), and the Supplemental Security Income program established by Title XVI of the Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. (1982). In an opinion reported at 589 F. Supp. 1494 (1984), the court granted the preliminary injunction after finding that plaintiffs had demonstrated injunction after finding that plaintiffs had demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the severity regulations violate the Act. The court denied the Secretary's subsequent motion to vacate the preliminary injunction, rejecting the contention that amendments to the Act enacted after entry of the preliminary injunction constituted a legislative ratification of the severity regulations. On appeal, the Secretary contends that the injunction is improper because the regulations are consistent with the Act and because the court failed to give sufficient deference to the Secretary's longstanding interpretation of the Act. We conclude that the granting of the injunction was not an abuse of the court's discretion and we therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND

In determining the eligibility of applicants for disability benefits under Title II or Title XVI of the Act, the Secretary uses a five-step sequential evaluation process, of which the severity regulations are a part. Under this process, only certain types of evidence are considered at each step of the evaluation. At issue in the present case is step 2; a failure to meet the disability criteria set by step 2 results in a denial of benefits without proceeding to any later step. In City of New York v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 729, 732 (2d Cir. 1984), cert. granted, 474 U.S. 815, 106 S. Ct. 57, 88 L. Ed. 2d 46 (1985), we described the process as follows:

The first step in the sequential process is a decision whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." If so, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), (b), 416.920(a), (b) (1983). If not, the second step is a decision whether the claimant's medical condition or impairment is "severe." If not, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the impairment is "severe," the third step is a decision whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the "Listing of Impairments" set forth in subpart P, app. 1, of the social security regulations, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). These are impairments acknow- ledged by the Secretary to be of sufficient severity to preclude gainful employment. If a claimant's condition meets or equals the "listed" impairments, he or she is conclusively presumed to be disabled and entitled to benefits. If the claimant's impairments do not satisfy the "Listing of Impairments," the fourth step is assessment of the individual's "residual functional capacity," i.e., his capacity to engage in basic work activities, and a decision whether the claimant's residual functional capacity permits him to engage in his prior work. If the residual functional capacity is consistent with prior employment, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(e). If not, the fifth and final step is a decision whether a claimant, in light of his residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience, has the capacity to perform "alternative occupations available in the national economy." Decker v. Harris, 647 F.2d 291, 298 (2d Cir. 1981); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If not, benefits are awarded.

At the times pertinent to the proceedings below, step 2 of the sequential process was set forth in the Secretary's regulations as follows:

You must have a severe impairment. If you do not have any impairment(s) which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled. We will not consider your age, education, and work experience.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c) (1984).

The plaintiffs in these actions, which have been consolidated for appeal, are persons whose applications for disability benefits were denied by the Secretary at the second step of the evaluation process on the ground that the medical evidence alone as to any single impairment, without regard to the claimants' age, education, employment, without regard to the claimants' age, education, employment experience, ability to return to prior work, on other vocational factors, failed to establish the existence of an impairment that significantly limited their ability to perform basic work activities. To the extent pertinent here, the plaintiff class consists of persons in the State of New York who have been or will be denied disability benefits under Title II or Title XVI of the Act or who have had or will have such benefits terminated on the basis of the severity regulations. Plaintiffs contend, inter alia, that the Act requires consideration of vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience, before an applicant may be found not disabled, and that Step 2 of the Secretary's process is therefore inconsistent with the Act. They also contend that the Secretary is required to consider their impairments in combination and is not to require that a single impairment be sufficiently severe to constitute a disability without consideration of their other impairments.

A. The Granting of the Preliminary Injunction

Following the commencement of the litigation, plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction

(1) prohibiting the Secretary from denying or terminating Social Security or SSI benefits due to the asserted non- severity of the claimant's impairments; (2) directing the Secretary to restore benefits to all members of the proposed class who (a) received decisions, finding them no longer eligible for benefits that were rendered at any stage of the administrative process, on July 20, 1983 or thereafter, or (b) had pending challenges to such decisions on July 20, 1983; and (3) directing the Secretary to reopen the applications of all class members whose applications for benefits have been denied by the ...


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