Justia Public Benefits Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
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With the onset of COVID-19, the Alabama Department of Labor received a record number of applications for unemployment benefits. The Department struggled to process the additional million-plus applications in a timely fashion. The plaintiffs-appellants in this case were among the many individuals who experienced delays in the handling of their applications. They brought this lawsuit in an effort to jumpstart the administrative-approval process. In their operative joint complaint, each plaintiff raised multiple claims for relief, all of which sought to compel the Alabama Secretary of Labor, Fitzgerald Washington, to improve the speed and manner in which the Department processes their applications for unemployment benefits. Secretary Washington responded to the suit by asking the circuit court to dismiss all claims against him, arguing (among other things) that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction over the suit because the plaintiffs had not yet exhausted mandatory administrative remedies. After the circuit court granted that motion, the plaintiffs appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with Secretary Washington that the Legislature prohibited courts from exercising jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' claims at this stage. The Court therefore affirmed the circuit court's judgment of dismissal. View "Johnson, et al. v. Washington" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Melonie Staheli appealed the denial of her application for Social Security disability benefits. She applied for benefits in 2018, alleging disability beginning March 28, 2018. In 2005, an automobile accident caused Staheli to suffer facial damage and other injuries. In March 2015, she suffered a stroke. After the stroke, she reported frequent headaches, memory loss, and vision problems. Medical professionals also diagnosed her with mental health issues including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Psychologists determined her IQ scores fell within the lowest ten percent of the population. Staheli was eventually terminated from her medical records job because she was unable to perform her work duties. She later obtained part-time work, and by the time of her benefits hearing, she was working 20 hours per week. An ALJ determined Staheli was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Finding no reversible error in the district court’s acceptance of the ALJ’s judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Staheli v. Commissioner, SSA" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff appealed the district court’s affirmance of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) denial of his claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) following the Appeals Council’s remand. He argued that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred on remand by reconsidering a prior finding of Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (RFC) after the prior decision had been vacated, in violation of the law-of-the-case doctrine and the mandate rule.   The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The court explained that the mandate rule, which is “a specific application” of the law-of-the-case doctrine, binds a lower court to execute the mandate of the higher court without further examination or variance. The court wrote that even assuming the law-of-the-case doctrine and mandate rule apply, the ALJ was free to reconsider Plaintiff’s RFC because the 2018 Decision was vacated. The court reasoned that the district court order made no findings about how the ALJ erred in his determination on Plaintiff’s disability. Instead, the district court remanded the case on a motion from the Commissioner without making specific factual findings, including whether or not the ALJ properly determined Plaintiff’s RFC. As a result, the Appeals Council had no factual findings in the remand order from which it could deviate. Additionally, the Appeals Council explained that Plaintiff filed a new SSI claim in 2019, and it consolidated that claim with his initial claims, which stemmed from the same disabilities. The SSA regulations allow an ALJ to consider any issues relating to the claim, whether or not they were raised in earlier administrative proceedings. View "George Weidner, III v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that because Plaintiff's state-law claims were based on allegations that his father's health maintenance organization (HMO) plan and healthcare services administrator that managed his father's benefits (collectively, Defendants) breached state-law duties that incorporated and duplicated standards established under Medicare Part C, Part C's preemption provision preempted them.Plaintiff brought this action alleging a state statutory claim under the Elder Abuse Act and common law claims of negligence and wrongful death for the alleged maltreatment of his father, a Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollee who died after being discharged from a skilled nursing facility. Plaintiff alleged that the MA HMO and healthcare services administrator breached a duty to ensure his father received skilled nursing benefits to which he was entitled under his MA plan. Defendants demurred, arguing that the claims were preempted by Part C's preemption provision. The trial court sustained the demurrers, and the court of appeal affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that because Plaintiff's state-law claims were based on allegations that Defendants breached state-law duties that incorporate and duplicate standards established under Part C, the claims were expressly preempted. View "Quishenberry v. UnitedHealthcare, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington a pro se action to challenge the denial of his claim for disability benefits by the Social Security Administration. A magistrate judge of that court, acting with the full civil authority of that court, reversed and remanded the matter to the agency for rehearing after the government conceded that there was an error in the agency’s adjudication. Plaintiff appealed that decision.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The panel considered whether the magistrate judge had authority to exercise the full civil jurisdiction of the district court over Plaintiff’s claim. There is no doubt that the district court had jurisdiction over the case, but Plaintiff challenged whether he had given the consent that was required for a magistrate judge to exercise that jurisdiction. The panel held that it had jurisdiction to review the antecedent question of whether the magistrate judge validly entered judgment on behalf of the district court. The panel rejected Plaintiff’s contention that, as a pro se litigant, he believed he was consenting to the magistrate judge’s issuance of a report and recommendation, not a final judgment. The panel held that Plaintiff was fully informed of the district court’s conclusion that he had knowingly and voluntarily consented to the assignment to the magistrate judge. Further, the court wrote that Plaintiff was unable to show good cause or extraordinary circumstances to withdraw consent. The panel affirmed the district court’s conclusion that Plaintiff consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction. View "VICTOR WASHINGTON V. KILOLO KIJAKAZI" on Justia Law

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Relying on the vocational expert (“VE”)’s testimony, the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, and, therefore, Plaintiff was not disabled. Plaintiff’s attorney sent a letter to the Appeals Council asking it to review the ALJ’s finding that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. The Appeals Council made the attorney’s letter and a six-page attachment part of the record and denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s disability determination because it “found no reason under [the] rules to review the Administrative Law Judge’s decision.” On appeal, Plaintiff challenged only the ALJ’s conclusion that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that a person with Plaintiff’s limitations, age, education, and experience could perform.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision upholding the Commissioner of Social Security’s denial. The panel held that to determine whether the ALJ had a duty to address a conflict in job-number evidence (and failed to discharge that duty), it considers on a case-by-case “meritless or immaterial” or has “significant probative value.” Because Plaintiff did not present his job-number evidence to the ALJ during or after the hearing, the ALJ did not have any occasion to address the purported inconsistency between the VE’s estimates and Plaintiff’s contrary estimates. The panel held that the letter by Plaintiff’s counsel and the six pages of printouts together provided no basis to conclude that these results qualified as significant and probative evidence. View "JAMES WISCHMANN V. KILOLO KIJAKAZI" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed a claim under 42 U.S.C 405(g), believing the Social Security Administration miscalculated his benefits. He filed his claim more than one year after the SSA verbally denied his request for review, and after he did not receive the requested written documentation of the SSA's denial.The SSA filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Sec. 405(g)’s waiver of sovereign immunity applied only with respect to judicial review of a “final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security” and that Plaintiff had not obtained a final decision, having refused to exhaust the four-step administrative process. The district court granted SSA’s motion.Finding that Sec. 405(g)’s exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional, the Fourth Circuit nonetheless concluded that exhaustion is a mandatory requirement of the Social Security Act that may be excused only in a narrow set of circumstances, which were not present in this case. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal. View "L.N.P. v. Kilolo Kijakazi" on Justia Law

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More than a decade ago, Medicaid recipients filed this suit alleging that in violation of the Due Process Clause, the District of Columbia is failing to provide them notice and an opportunity to be heard when denying them prescription coverage. The case is now before the DC Circuit for the third time. In the first two appeals, the DC Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissals for lack of standing and for failure to state a claim, respectively. On remand, the district court once more dismissed the case, this time for mootness.   The DC Circuit again reversed and remanded with instructions to proceed expeditiously with discovery and allow Plaintiffs to make their case. The court explained that Plaintiffs challenged the District’s failure to give Medicaid recipients reasons for denying their prescriptions and an explanation of how to appeal, and uncontested evidence demonstrates that, notwithstanding the transmittal memorandum, some number of Plaintiffs are still not receiving the information they claim they are entitled to under the Due Process Clause. Because it is not “impossible for [the district] court to grant any effectual relief,” the case is not moot. View "Elsa Maldonado v. DC" on Justia Law

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The Northern Arapaho Tribe and the Indian Health Service (IHS) entered into a contract under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act for the Tribe to operate a federal healthcare program. Under the contract, the Tribe provided healthcare services to Indians and other eligible beneficiaries. In exchange, the Tribe was entitled to receive reimbursements from IHS for certain categories of expenditures, including “contract support costs.” The contract anticipates that the Tribe will bill third-party insurers such as Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers. The Tribe contended that overhead costs associated with setting up and administering this third-party billing infrastructure, as well as the administrative costs associated with recirculating the third-party revenue it received, qualified as reimbursable contract support costs under the Self-Determination Act and the Tribe’s agreement with the IHS. But when the Tribe attempted to collect those reimbursements, IHS disagreed and refused to pay. Contending it had been shortchanged, the Tribe sued the government. The district court, agreeing with the government’s reading of the Self-Determination Act and the contract, granted the government’s motion to dismiss. A divided panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals voted to reverse (for different reasons). Under either of the jurists' interpretations, the administrative expenditures associated with collecting and expending revenue obtained from third-party insurers qualified as reimbursable contract support costs. View "Northern Arapaho Tribe v. Becerra, et al." on Justia Law

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May is a disabled child of a deceased veteran. The VA found that May was disabled from birth, with permanent incapacity for self-support, and granted him entitlement to dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) benefits in October 2018, with an effective date of May 18, 2016, concluding that May’s entitlement to DIC benefits ended on February 1, 2017, when he married. May sought reinstatement of DIC benefits based on his divorce. May filed a notice of appeal to the Veterans Court in February 2021, listing the date of the Board’s decision as February 19, 2019. The Board had not rendered a decision on February 19, 2019; rather, May had received correspondence that day from a VA regional office certifying an appeal to the Board.The Veterans Court ordered May to show cause why his appeal should not be dismissed. In letters, May asked that his appeal not be dismissed and that his benefits be reinstated. May did not identify a Board decision from which he was appealing, nor did he argue that the Board had unreasonably delayed its decision. The Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. The court’s jurisdiction is limited to appeals from Board decisions; absent such a decision, it could not consider May’s appeal, 38 U.S.C. 7252(a), 7266(a)). View "May v. McDonough" on Justia Law