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Opinion analysis: Dismissal as untimely of Supplemental Security Income claimant’s request for review is final decision subject to judicial review

  May 29, 2019 | By Kathryn Moore, SCOTUSBlog

Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act allows for judicial review of “any final decision … made after a hearing” by the Social Security Administration. Yesterday, in a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court resolved in favor of the claimant, Ricky Lee Smith, a split among the courts of appeal as to whether a claimant has a right to judicial review under section 405(g) when the SSA’s Appeals Council dismisses the claimant’s request for review as untimely after the claimant has obtained a hearing before an administrative law judge.

The opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, began with the text of the statute. The court had no difficulty finding that the Appeals Council’s dismissal of the claim fits within the term “final decision,” because the dismissal was the final stage of review. The court’s interpretation of the “after a hearing” requirement was a bit more nuanced. After observing that the phrase “has been the  subject of some confusion over the years,” the court declined “to give section 405(g) a definition for all seasons” because in this case Smith had obtained the kind of hearing the statute “most naturally suggests: an ALJ hearing on the merits.” The court noted that the “after a hearing” requirement cannot be satisfied “as matter of mere chronology.” To allow that it could would risk “untenable breadth.” Instead, distinguishing the case from Califano v. Sanders, which involved the denial of a petition to reopen, the court found that the final decision in this case was much more closely tethered to the relevant “hearing.” Moreover, the claimant’s access to “this first bite at the apple” is “a matter of legislative right rather than agency grace.”

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