Friday, November 19, 2010

Social Security - remand - opportunity to be heard

Thomas v. Commissioner - Third Circuit - November 18, 2010

After being denied benefits, claimant filed an appeal in the district court, which after full briefing issued an order affirming the Commissioner’s decision with regard to whether claimant met a Listing but remanding the case to the Commissioner for further explanation of the Commissioner’s determination that Thomas did not functionally equal the listings.

Claimant appealed the district court order. During the pendency of this appeal, the ALJ issued an amended decision explaining his rationale for finding that claimant did not functionally equal the listings. Notably, the ALJ did not give the parties an opportunity to be heard, via a hearing or through submissions, prior to rendering the amended decision. Thereafter, the District Court filed an amended order reversing the Commissioner’s decision claimant benefits and remanding the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings in accordance with the opinion filed with its earlier order.

Held: the District Court abused its discretion in its remand order when it remanded a single issue to the ALJ for clarification without directing the ALJ to fully develop the record prior to rendering an explanatory decision.

This Court requires an ALJ to set forth the reasons for his decision, see Cotter v. Harris, 642 F. 2d 700, 704-705 (3d Cir. 1981), because conclusory statements are “beyond meaningful judicial review.” Burnett v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 220 F. 3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000) Here, the District Court’s remand to the Commissioner runs afoul of the essence of Burnett because it does not direct the ALJ to reopen and fully develop the record before rendering a ruling.

By not giving the Commissioner explicit instructions to fully develop the record, the District Court essentially gave the ALJ license to issue an advisory opinion, which is exactly what occurred here. To be sure, the purpose of Burnett is not to require a formulaic process that must be adhered to on remand, but rather to ensure that the parties have an opportunity to be heard on the remanded issue and prevent post hoc rationalization by administrative law judges.