Recently, the case Cirko v. Commissioner of Social Security was presented to the Third Circuit, addressing whether Social Security Disability (SSD) claimants must exhaust Appointments Clause challenges of the administrative law judges (ALJs) whose appointments they are challenging before raising the issue in district court.
—Read the decision here or listen to the oral argument here.
The Decision to Uphold Individual's Rights
The Third Circuit delivered a satisfying decision on the case, holding that the principle of issue exhaustion did not prohibit arguing the constitutionality of the appointment of ALJs post-Lucia v. SEC and SSR 19-1p. The driving factor in their decision was the principle of the individual’s rights.
Their decision and reasoning behind it give a renewed sense of hope and gratitude for the founding principles of the Constitution, judicial system, and SSD representatives fighting the good fight. Let’s review this case more in-depth.
The SSA's Arguments
The Court was legitimately concerned about the burden placed on individuals applying for disability with the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA argued individuals (both pro se and represented claimants) should have raised the issue of lack of constitutional appointment of judges at the hearing and appeals council level. Indeed, the SSA expected a claimant to argue in front of an ALJ—who determines their disability—that ALJs are not constitutionally appointed, nor qualified to make the decision of disability. Clearly, this would not be a fair case if claimants had to do this.
Moreover, the unconstitutional appointment of ALJs and AAJs wasn’t even a claim required by the SSA; it isn’t included in SSA regulations or policy. The Court realized this unrealistic and unsupported burden placed on the claimant’s shoulders. The Court’s decision ruled in favor of the individuals, stating the ALJ has a bigger burden to identify issues than the claimant, especially pro se claimants.
The Appointments Clause
The Court reminds us that, prior to the American Revolution, the British appointed leaders mistreated and abused the public. The Court referenced the Declaration of Independence and the Founders who realized how much power leaders and officers had at the time; thus, our Forefathers wrote the Appointments Clause as part of the Constitution: To protect individuals, leaders can only be appointed by the president, head of department, or court of law.
The Court continued on, emphasizing that the separation of powers and unbiased leaders in our government are essential to good governance. We have the Appointments Clause and, more, the Constitution to uphold our nation’s guiding principle: the protection of individuals. Certainly, the Third Circuit continues to uphold this moral and legal principle, giving hope and protection to many individuals facing large government structures and ALJs who determine their future.
The Interest of the Individual is Priority
Finally, the Court found the SSA to be different than many other government organizations; its distinguishing feature is that proceedings are inquisitorial in nature rather than adversarial. Therefore, the interest of the individual should be a priority throughout the process of filing for disability. Both the individual and the SSA have duties to develop the record; the SSA also holds the responsibility to care for the interests of the claimants—which doesn’t always happen. However, this decision reminds us of the underlying principle that we work toward every day: ensuring individuals are protected throughout the disability process.