Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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Wilkerson mined coal for over 25 years. In 1994, he retired from the Island Creek’s Crescent mine, where he had worked most recently as an electrician. In 2012, Wilkers sought benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, which provides compensation to miners disabled by pneumoconiosis, 30 U.S.C. 902(b), 922(a)(1). The Sixth Circuit denied a petition for review, upholding the Benefits Review Board’s award of benefits. The defendant forfeited an argument that the ALJ lacked authority to hear the case under the Appointments Clause by failing to raise it in its opening brief. Appointments Clause challenges arise under the U.S. Constitution, but are “not jurisdictional and thus are subject to ordinary principles of waiver and forfeiture.” Substantial evidence supports the award. An ALJ may presume an applicant suffers from the disease if he worked for 15 years at a qualifying coaling mine and suffers “a totally disabling respiratory or pulmonary impairment.” Wilkerson worked for more than 15 years at a qualifying mine, and substantial evidence showed that he suffered total disability due to a respiratory or pulmonary impairment. Faced with the conflicting medical evidence, the ALJ turned to the four doctors who testified, credited testimony from one doctor, discounted the three others for legitimate reasons, and concluded that Wilkerson suffered from a disability. The doctor’s conclusion about Wilkerson’s disability tracked the newest available data. View "Island Creek Coal Co. v. Wilkerson" on Justia Law

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In 2006-2008, plaintiffs each applied, unsuccessfully, for Social Security disability benefits, 42 U.S.C. 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Each plaintiff retained Kentucky attorney Conn to assist with a subsequent hearing. Each plaintiff’s application included medical records from one of four examining doctors. In each case, ALJ Daugherty relied exclusively on the doctor's opinion to conclude, without a hearing, that plaintiffs were disabled and entitled to benefits. Daugherty took bribes from Conn to assign Conn’s cases to himself and issue favorable rulings. Nearly 10 years after the agency learned of the scheme, it initiated “redeterminations” of plaintiffs’ eligibility for benefits and held new hearings, disregarding all medical evidence submitted by the four doctors participating in Conn’s scheme. Plaintiffs had no opportunity to rebut the assertion of fraud as to this evidence. Each plaintiff was deemed ineligible for benefits as of the date of their original applications; their benefits were terminated. Plaintiffs sued, alleging violations of the Due Process Clause and the Social Security Act. The Sixth Circuit held that the plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment on their due-process claim and the agency is entitled to summary judgment on the Social Security Act claims. The agency must proffer some factual basis for believing that the plaintiffs’ evidence is fraudulent. Plaintiffs must have an opportunity to “rebut the Government’s factual assertions before a neutral decisionmaker.” Congress has already told the agency what to do when redetermination proceedings threaten criminal adjudications; the answer is not to deprive claimants of basic procedural safeguards. View "Griffith v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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The Tennessee Hospital Association and three hospitals sued, challenging efforts by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to direct states to recoup certain reimbursements made under the Medicaid program. The hospitals serve a disproportionate share of Medicaid-eligible patients and are thereby entitled to supplemental payments under the Medicaid Act, (DSH payments), 42 U.S.C. 1396a(a)(13)(A)(iv); 1396r-4(b). The Act limits the amount of DSH payments each hospital can receive in a given year. CMS contends that the hospitals miscalculated their DSH payment-adjustments for fiscal year 2012 and received extra payments. Plaintiffs argued, and the district court agreed, that CMS’s approach to calculating DSH payment adjustments is inconsistent with the Act and the regulations that CMS implemented in 2008. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, agreeing that CMS’s policy is inconsistent with its 2008 rule and cannot be enforced unless it is promulgated pursuant to notice-and-comment rulemaking. The court disagreed with the district court’s conclusion that CMS’s policy exceeds the agency’s authority under the Medicaid Act. CMS’s payment-deduction policy is a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous section of the Act but is not a valid interpretative rule. CMS attempted to exercise its delegated discretion to “determine[]” the “costs incurred” in serving Medicaid-eligible patients—precisely the sort of agency action that requires notice-and-comment rulemaking. View "Tennessee Hospital Association v. Azar" on Justia Law

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Burchett and Jude suffered from serious mental illnesses. Each hired attorney Conn to represent them in applying for Social Security disability benefits, 42 U.S.C. 405(a), which were granted in 2009 and 2010. Conn was perpetrating a fraudulent scheme. Conn paid doctors to submit fraudulent letters concerning his clients' ailments and bribed an ALJ to assign Conn’s cases to his own docket and to decide nearly all of those cases in favor of Conn. Plaintiffs allege that the SSA had reason to suspect Conn's fraud in 2007 due to the reports of internal whistle-blowers. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal published a story about Conn’s exploits. Conn was indicted and pleaded guilty. The Huntington, West Virginia SSA office's former Chief ALJ, pleaded guilty to retaliation against a whistle-blower. The SSA’s Appeals Council informed Jude and Burchett that it was legally required to redetermine their eligibility for benefits (42 U.S.C. 1320a-8(l). Their benefits were suspended pending redeterminations. Each requested additional time to gather evidence. About two weeks after the SSA notices, before the SSA granted those requests, Jude and Burchett each committed suicide. Their estates filed Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) claims for wrongful death with the SSA, 28 U.S.C. 1346(b) and 2671, and a Bivens claim alleging procedural due process violations. The Federal Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claims, concluding that the FTCA’s discretionary function exception applied to preclude that claim and that the Bivens claim was improperly formulated. View "Jude v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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Michigan’s Medicaid waiver program provides individuals with developmental disabilities community-based services. Washtenaw County changed its budgeting method in 2015. Notices sent to recipients acknowledged that recipients would have to pay service-providers less in order to maintain their approved hours of service. The Association, a nonprofit community organization assisting individuals with developmental disabilities, joined with three individual plaintiffs to filed suit, alleging due process violations and seeking a preliminary injunction. The Association’s CEO testified that 169 individuals, including the three named plaintiffs, had received notices and that the three were Association members. The district court concluded that the Association lacked associational standing because the 169 people for whom it claimed associational standing were not shown to be members; the named members, in their individual capacities, were not entitled to injunctive relief because they had appealed the reductions and received favorable decisions so “there can be no irreparable harm suffered by the named Plaintiffs as a result of the inadequate notice.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed, noting that “standing is not dispensed in gross.” An individual must demonstrate standing for each claim he seeks to press and for each form of relief sought; an association that relies upon an individual member for standing purposes must do the same. The Association has not shown that any named member had standing to seek fresh notices and hearing rights when it filed its complaint.. View "Waskul v. Washtenaw County Community Mental Health" on Justia Law

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Cardew, a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic, had a summer internship with Lear Corporation thanks to his cousin, a Lear vice president. Over about three months, Cardew earned $5,502.75. Lear allowed Cardew a 30-hour work week, rather than the typical 40-hour week; exempted him from tasks typically assigned interns that involved traveling and from clerical tasks because of his difficulty with typing; and allowed more frequent breaks to adjust his position to avoid skin ulcers and use the restroom. Lear also paid $4,0000 to modify doors to be wheelchair-accessible. After the internship, Cardew applied for child disability benefits retroactive to age 15, when an accident rendered him, quadriplegic. Having applied after his eighteenth birthday, he had to prove that he has lived with a continuous disability since the accident. An ALJ denied Cardew’s application based on the income he received from Lear, reasoning that because Cardew’s earnings over three months exceeded a “bright line” threshold in the regulations, he had been “able to work at the substantial gainful activity level.” The Sixth Circuit vacated, finding the legal analysis incomplete and more rigid than the regulations require. Even assuming Cardew engaged in “gainful” activity, the ALJ failed to consider all the special conditions attendant to Cardew’s internship that could rebut the presumption, created by his income, that he had engaged in “substantial” activity. View "Cardew v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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In November 2010, Hayes engaged Cybriwsky to represent him related to the denial of Hayes’s application for Social Security disability benefits. In February 2011, the case was remanded for further administrative hearings (42 U.S.C. 405(g)) because faulty recordings of the hearings rendered the record inaudible. On remand, the Administrative Law Judge entered a fully favorable decision for Hayes in August 2011. The district court affirmed in April 2012. The next month Cybriwsky sought attorney’s fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act, 28 U.S.C. 2414. The court granted attorney’s fees of $2,225 in August 2012. In April 2017, Cybriwsky moved, under 42 U.S.C. 406(b), seeking more than $11,000. in fees. He subsequently provided documentation of the fee arrangement, benefits paid to Hayes, and an itemized description of the work performed. By the time Cybriwsky filed his 2017 motion, the SSA had released the 25% of past-due benefits normally reserved to pay attorney’s fees; $5,300 was awarded to Hayes’s attorney at the administrative level and the remainder was released to Hayes. Any fees awarded to Cybriwsky would have to be recovered from Hayes, either directly or by having fees taken from Hayes’s monthly disability payments. The Sixth Circuit affirmed denial of the motion as untimely and determined that the circumstances did not merit the exercise of equitable tolling. View "Hayes v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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The VA determined that West, a Viet Nam veteran, was eligible for a disability pension. Two days later West died. Four days later—without knowing that West had died—the government sent West a check for $8,660--his pension benefit retroactive to June 2013. In March 2014, a Kentucky probate court appointed West’s ex-wife, Brenda, as the Estate's executor. Brenda endorsed the VA check, the estate’s only cash asset, and deposited it into an escrow account. After three months, the VA determined that West’s estate was not entitled to the money, 38 U.S.C. 5121(a), and directed the bank to wire the $8,660 back to the U.S. Treasury. The bank complied. The Estate did not learn until later that its account had been drained of funds. More than 18 months later, the Estate obtained a Kentucky probate court order requiring the government to return the funds. The government removed the matter to the district court, which remanded the matter back because the $8,660 was already subject to the probate court’s jurisdiction. The Estate unsuccessfully sought attorneys’ fees. The Sixth Circuit reversed the remand order; the dispute can be litigated only under the procedure set forth in the Veterans’ Judicial Review Act, 102 Stat 4105. The court noted “concerns about the government’s expropriation of the Estate’s funds without any advance notice or process.” View "Estate of West v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Earley applied for disability benefits, 42 U.S.C. 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B) . In 2012, an ALJ rejected the application on the ground that Earley, who suffered from fibromyalgia, mild carpal tunnel syndrome, panic disorder, degenerative disk disease, and major depression, did not have a covered disability. She applied again for a new period of time. The same ALJ denied her benefits, citing Sixth Circuit precedent (Drummond) as requiring him to give preclusive effect to the work-capacity finding he had made during the first proceeding absent “new and material evidence documenting a significant change in the claimant’s condition.” The district court reversed, concluding that the Drummond “principles of res judicata” apply only when they favor an individual applicant, not the government. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. The key principles protected by Drummond—consistency between proceedings and finality with respect to resolved applications—apply to individuals and the government but do not prevent the agency from giving a fresh look to a new application containing new evidence or satisfying a new regulatory threshold that covers a new period of alleged disability while being mindful of past rulings and the record in prior proceedings. View "Earley v. Commissioner of Social Security" on Justia Law

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Raymond, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, was born in 1947 and was a long-term resident of Middlesboro, Kentucky. He worked in the coal-mining industry for over 20 years and developed severe respiratory issues. Raymond, a non-smoker, sought benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, 30 U.S.C. 901, but died while his claim was pending. Raymond’s claim was consolidated with a claim for survivor’s benefits submitted by his widow, Joanna. The ALJ awarded benefits to Joanna, on both Raymond’s behalf, and as his surviving spouse. The Benefits Review Board affirmed. Zurich, the insurer of Straight Creek Coal, sought review. The Sixth Circuit denied Zurich’s petition, upholding the ALJ’s conclusions that Zurich failed to rebut the presumption of timeliness, that Raymond had worked for at least 15 years in qualifying employment, and that Raymond had a total respiratory disability. Raymond worked only in surface mines or coal-preparation plants during his career; the ALJ properly relied on 20 C.F.R. 718.305(b)(2) and determined whether Raymond’s mining employment was “substantially similar” to underground mining. View "Zurich American Insurance Group v. Duncan" on Justia Law