United States District Court, D. Rhode Island
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
LINCOLN D. ALMOND United States Magistrate Judge.
before me for a report and recommendation (28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B)) is the Commissioner's Motion for Voluntary
Remand. (ECF Doc. No. 14). Plaintiff does not oppose a remand
in principle but filed a response regarding the particulars
of the Remand Order. (ECF Doc. No. 15 at p. 1). A hearing was
held on March 21, 2019.
travel of this case is complicated. This is the second appeal
to this Court regarding Plaintiff's applications for
Social Security benefits. Plaintiff initially filed his
applications on January 17, 2013, alleging disability since
September 1, 2012. (Tr. 213, 217). The ALJ denied the
applications on September 25, 2014. (Tr. 13-30).
filed subsequent applications for disability benefits on
January 28, 2016. (Tr. 461, n.2). Shortly after he filed the
new applications, he also filed a timely appeal in this Court
regarding the 2014 denial. (See C.A. No.
1:16-cv-00051-JJM-PAS). The subsequent applications were
allowed on May 14, 2016, with a finding that Plaintiff had
been disabled at all times since September 26, 2014, the day
after the prior unfavorable decision. (Tr. 661-665). On
November 1, 2016, the Commissioner filed a Motion for
Voluntary Remand of the first District Court appeal (Tr.
562). When the Appeals Council effectuated the Voluntary
Remand, it stated the following regarding the subsequent
applications: “The Appeals Council neither affirms nor
reopens these determinations, which continue to be binding.
This means that the determinations will be subject to
reopening and revision if additional development indicates
that the conditions for reopening are met (20 CFR §
404.987 and 416.1487).” (Tr. 566).
counsel accurately argued to the ALJ at the remand hearing on
July 19, 2017 that the subsequent allowance of benefits could
not be reopened and revised without “good cause”
because more than one year had passed since they were
decided. (Tr. 484-486). On remand, the ALJ re-issued a denial
of the initial claims and also reopened and reversed the
subsequent allowances, effectively terminating
Plaintiff's eligibility for disability benefits. The
August 29, 2017 unfavorable decision determined that
Plaintiff was not disabled at all times from September 1,
2012 through the decision date. (Tr. 458-474).
filed a timely appeal in the form of Exceptions to the August
29, 2017 unfavorable decision with the Appeals Council. (Tr.
667). He argued the ALJ abused her discretion in order to
“punish” Plaintiff for having filed his earlier
appeal. Id. He also argued that the “good
cause” requirements for reopening the subsequent
allowance of benefits had not been met or even addressed by
the ALJ in her decision. (Tr. 668).
Appeals Council responded on May 15, 2018 declining to assume
jurisdiction over the case and rejecting Plaintiff's
argument that the good cause standard to reopen was not met.
(Tr. 451-453). Thus, the August 29, 2017 unfavorable decision
became a final administrative decision, and Plaintiff
thereafter filed the instant appeal.
appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ committed multiple
errors including the decision to reopen the subsequent
application without finding the necessary “good
cause” as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.989 and
416.1489. (ECF Doc. No. 13-1). The Commissioner concedes in
her Motion for Voluntary Remand that the “ALJ
improperly reopened the April 2016 determination finding
Plaintiff disabled beginning on September 26, 2014.”
(ECF Doc. No. 14-1 at p. 3). The Commissioner acknowledges
that the ALJ failed to mention the good cause requirement for
reopening or articulate a good cause finding. Id.
parties are in disagreement about two issues regarding the
parameters of a remand. First, Plaintiff wants the remand
order to foreclose any further reopening of the April 2016
award of benefits. And, second, Plaintiff argues that the
case should be remanded solely for the calculation and
payment of benefits, rather than further administrative
proceedings on the initial applications.
these issues in reverse order, a remand solely to award
benefits is rarely granted and conflicts with the principle
of judicial deference to administrative determinations.
See Seavey v. Barnhart, 276 F.3d 1, 11-12
(1st Cir. 2001) (“ordinarily the court can
order the agency to provide the relief it denied only in the
unusual case in which the underlying facts and law
are such that the agency has no discretion to act in any
manner other than to award…benefits”) (emphasis
added). Unless the record is so clear and overwhelming that
an award of benefits is mandated, a reviewing Court should
ordinarily remand for further administrative proceedings.
Id. Plaintiff's argument for remand solely to
award benefits is brief (two paragraphs) and unconvincing.
(ECF Doc. No. 14-1 at p. 3). Plaintiff fails to show that the
record does not contain any evidentiary conflicts to be
resolved, need for further clarification of the ALJ's
Step 4 findings or other development of the record. Thus,
this is not the “unusual” case where the record
mandates only one possible conclusion - the award of
the former issue, I agree with Plaintiff that the remand
order should foreclose the ALJ from reopening the April 2016
award of benefits. This is the second appeal to this Court
and the Commissioner's second request for remand due to
conceded errors. The initial application dates back to 2013
and is still under administrative review. The interests of
justice call for a focused remand and a prompt and final
Commissioner concedes that the ALJ did not consider the
proper standard to reopen or sufficiently explain her
decision to reopen the April 2016 determination. However, she
contends that this Court should not foreclose reopening of
the 2016 determination on remand in accordance with the
applicable regulations because it presents a “factual
determination for the agency, not the court.” (ECF Doc.
No. 14-1 at p. 4). While true, the ALJ was correctly apprised
of the applicable standard by Plaintiff's counsel at the
remand hearing and failed to undertake the appropriate
analysis. Further, although not reviewable here, it ...