Smith v. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, No. 17-1606. May 28, 2019.
Smith spent considerable time and effort making his way through three layers of review of his disability claim, including participating in administrative law judge proceedings. However, at the fourth level of appellate review his claim was dismissed as untimely. There was dispute concerning the Social Security Administration’s receipt of the request for appellate review.. Yet when Smith sought review in federal court, his claim was again dismissed because the federal court agreed with the agency’s view that the dismissal for untimeliness was not final for purposes of seeking federal court review. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed. After much effort, Smith would be without remedy.
Although Justice Sotomayor characterized this case as somewhat routine, in many respects it is anything but. The Supreme Court in this case has warned that federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration are not sole arbiters of their own authority. An Agency cannot require multiple layers of review, including a hearing, and then call dismissal at the fourth level non-final, thereby precluding federal review. Add to this that the government confessed error in its earlier interpretations of the law, requiring appointment of special counsel to represent the government.
While observing that the Administrative Procedures Act and agency exhaustion of remedies requirements are not identical, the Court underscored that an agency may not serve as an unreviewable arbiter of compliance with its own administrative steps. This is particularly so where, as in this case, exhaustion is not a jurisdictional prerequisite.
While no doubt the government will make mistakes, the Court was not persuaded by any “floodgates” argument arising because of such errors. The Court stressed that just because federal jurisdiction property could include a merits determination rather than remand, courts would do well to tread lightly in that regard, as the entire structure of administrative review is intended to permit all concerned to benefit from agency expertise.
It would be unwise to speculate as to how far interpretations of this case might stretch. It is fair to say, however, that the case will stand for the proposition that a federal agency administering its own programs cannot create a citadel of its of procedures, leaving claimants without remedies while insulating the agency from review.