New opinion: a reversal in favor of the Social Security Administration [guest post]

This is a guest post by David Goodwin.

Russell Hess v. Commissioner of Social Security—Social Security—Reversal—Jordan

Approximately 1,500 federal lawsuits challenging the denial of Social Security or SSI benefits are filed each month. “[N]o other type of appeal from an administrative agency,” two law professors have remarked, “generates anywhere near the volume of litigation for district courts that disability claims do.” Wildly divergent outcomes in the agency yield wildly divergent outcomes across the district courts—even though Social Security cases, like other administrative cases, are ostensibly characterized by deference to the agency’s decision-making.

Today’s decision is about that central tension in the face of a perceived eagerness, on the part of district courts, to deny the agency the deference it is due. In Hess, the claimant lost before the agency, but prevailed in District Court. The government appealed, arguing that the Social Security Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) gave “valid” reasons for denying benefits that the District Court had incorrectly overlooked. The Third Circuit agreed and, in a decision by Judge Jordan, reversed with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the government.

The “somewhat complicated question” presented by the government’s appeal is whether the ALJ’s finding that Hess suffered from “moderate difficulties” in concentration, persistence, and pace undermined both a limitation to jobs requiring only simple instructions and questions along those lines to a vocational expert, as part of the complex interplay among the five steps used to determine whether a claimant is disabled. The District Court had thought that Ramirez v. Barnhart, 372 F.3d 546 (3d Cir. 2004), required any questions posed to the vocational expert at step five to include the limitations found at previous steps. Not so, Judge Jordan says: “the findings at steps two and three will not necessarily translate to the language used at steps four and five,” even though the statement of limitation does need to reflect the claimant’s particular impairments.

Next, Judge Jordan concludes that a “simple tasks” limitation fairly reflected the finding of moderate difficulties, because the ALJ offered a “valid explanation” for it. Ramirez, Judge Jordan writes, “did not hold that there is any categorical prohibition against using a ‘simple tasks’ limitation” after a finding that a claimant “often” faces concentration, persistence, or pace difficulties. A “valid explanation” satisfies Ramirez‘s requirements.

The final piece of the puzzle is whether the ALJ’s decision was a true “valid explanation.” Central to Judge Jordan’s answer of “yes” are the ALJ’s extensive findings about the extent of Hess’s disabilities, such as the relative weight assigned by the ALJ to various expert reports, which are summarized across several pages of the decision.

Joining Judge Jordan were Judge Roth (whose statement about “magic word” requirements in a 1993 partial concurrence is cited with approval) and Judge Krause. Jordana Cooper argued for the government and Thomas F. Meister of Marzzacco Niven & Associates argued for the claimaint-appellee.