United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, E.D
February 7, 1980
ISAAC DELONEY ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
JOSEPH CALIFANO, SECRETARY OF HEALTH, EDUCATION AND WELFARE ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Parsons, Chief Judge.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Presently before the Court is a renewed motion for summary
judgment brought by
the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, the defendant
in this case. After carefully reviewing all matters of record,
I find that summary judgment on behalf of defendant is now
Plaintiff brought this case as a class action to challenge
alleged "illegal" delays in processing Social Security
disability benefit claims. Such delays assertedly violate
Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq.,
the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 555(b), (e), and
the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United
States Constitution, inasmuch as:
(i) over half of the Illinois applicants do not
receive a determination on an initial application
within 60 days;
(ii) half of the applicants who succeed at the
reconsideration (first hearing) stage wait more
than 90 days;
(iii) an applicant waits between seven or
fourteen months from the time of a hearing
request to a decision and over two months for
implementation of same.
(iv) 40 per cent of those requesting Appeals
Council review must wait more than 90 days for a
(v) defendant, Secretary of Health, Education
and Welfare, has failed to promulgate through the
Social Security Administration any regulation
setting forth reasonable maximum time limits for
each of the above stages.
In a memorandum opinion and order entered August 16, 1977,
this Court concluded that subject matter jurisdiction was
available pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and in the
alternative, pursuant to a mandamus action under 28 U.S.C. § 1361.
The Court also reserved final ruling on cross motions for
summary judgment pending an evidentiary hearing at which
defendant was to bear the burden of either:
(1) presenting new justifications for the time
delays in processing Title II claims; or
(2) presenting evidence of progress made during
1976 and 1977 in reducing these delays, so as to
meet a 90 day maximum goal at each of the four
stages in the "open files" process.
In proceedings held before me on June 23, 1978, the Court
found that defendant had met its burden by showing some
progress in decreasing administrative delay and by presenting
credible justification for the delays. Accordingly the Court
permitted a maximum time limit of 120 days for each stage in
Title II cases for a six month period. At the end of this
time, defendant retained the burden of presenting
justifications for processing delays or of presenting evidence
of progress made during the six months.
On December 27, 1978 defendant filed a six month report
pursuant to this order. At that time, the Court permitted the
Secretary to discontinue monitoring the time for processing
disability benefit claims pending disposition of his motion
for summary judgment.
In a memorandum opinion and order entered May 31, 1979 this
Court granted plaintiff's motion for leave to file an amended
complaint.*fn1 The Court further concluded that defendant's
motion for summary judgment may be renewed. While the
Secretary remained relieved of the requirement of making
further evidentiary reports to the court, defendant was given
the option of furnishing further evidence and argument in
support of his renewed motion for summary judgment.
II. THE RELEVANT STATUTES
Plaintiffs assert that the delays in processing claims for
Social Security disability benefits violate the Administrative
Procedure Act (APA).*fn2 Plaintiffs further assert
that defendant's failure to promulgate rules and regulations
establishing reasonable maximum time limits for disability
claims determinations or to establish procedures to provide
reasonably prompt claims determinations violates the Social
Security Act (the Act).*fn3 Finally, plaintiffs assert that
defendant's failure to make prompt claims determinations
violates plaintiff's and members of plaintiff class' rights to
due process of law under the Fifth Amendment to the United
III. THE STATUTORY CLAIMS
The Court is cognizant of decisions in other circuits
holding that delays in providing hearings and reviews with
respect to Social Security benefits are "unreasonable" under
the Act and the APA. See Barnett v. Califano, 580 F.2d 28 (2d
Cir. 1978); White v. Mathews, 559 F.2d 852 (2d Cir. 1977),
cert. denied, 435 U.S. 908, 98 S.Ct. 1458, 55 L.Ed.2d 500
(1978); Caswell v. Califano, 583 F.2d 9 (1st Cir. 1978).
Further, it cannot be doubted that the Social Security
Administration ("SSA") is under a statutory duty to provide
hearings and reviews within a "reasonable time." Blankenship v.
Secretary of HEW, 587 F.2d 329, 333-34 (6th Cir. 1978). The
difficulty arises, however, in assessing the reasonableness of
agency performance in the light of the unique circumstances
before the Court. Blankenship, supra, at 334.
The issue presented therefore is whether the delays in
processing disability claims are here so unreasonable as to
constitute a breach of plaintiffs' statutory or constitutional
rights. For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that
the delays, though clearly undesirable, are not so
unreasonable as to constitute such a breach as to warrant
judicial intervention in the administrative process here
Plaintiff and plaintiff class have alleged that there is a
dilatory motive and a lack of evenhandedness on the part of
the Social Security Administration (SSA) in processing
disability claims at all levels of the determinations
procedure. The Court has scrutinized the relevant documents,
exhibits and memoranda and finds that the evidence does not
support these allegations.
The evidence shows that there are various exigent
circumstances beyond the agency's control which have made
prompt claims determinations extremely difficult, if not
impossible.*fn4 Notwithstanding these factors, the evidence
shows that the SSA, being acutely aware of the delays, has
confronted this problem with all of its available resources
and has demonstrated progress in diminishing processing
delays.*fn5 It is also clear that the delays complained of in
case are systemwide and are not peculiar to the administration
and enforcement of the Act in Region V.*fn6 Thus, any
assertion that defendant has exhibited bad faith toward
plaintiffs in adjudicating disability claims is unfounded.
Plaintiffs further allege that defendant has failed to
establish regulations or guidelines for the efficient and
timely administration of the Act pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(a).
The Court finds this contention to be unpersuasive. The
evidence shows a clear and articulated SSA policy to reduce
processing delays.*fn7 While this policy has not been
expressed in terms of rules containing rigid time limitations
for adjudicating claims, the Court finds that the demonstrated
good faith efforts and communicated desire of the Secretary and
the SSA to reduce delays are sufficient to fulfill the
Secretary's statutory obligation. Accordingly, the Secretary
has not breached his statutory duty to plaintiffs under the
The Court also has reservations with respect to the proper
role of the courts in this type of administrative proceedings.
In Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. National Resources
Defense Council, Inc., 435 U.S. 519, 98 S.Ct. 1197, 55 L.Ed.2d
460 (1978), the Supreme Court expressed concern that reviewing
courts will "(engraft) their own notions of proper procedures
upon agencies entrusted with substantive functions by
Congress." 435 U.S. at 525, 98 S.Ct. at 1202. While evidence of
greatly disproportionate delays in agency action or evidence of
a lack of evenhandedness or a dilatory motive on part of an
agency may in some cases warrant judicial relief,*fn8 here
there is no such evidence.
It has been stated that "it would be the extremely rare case
where a Court would be justified in holding . . . that the
passage of time and nothing more presents an occasion for the
peremptory intervention of an outside Court in the conduct of
an agency's adjudicative proceedings." Weingarten, supra 336
F.2d at 691-92. By expressing our unwillingness to sanction the
performance of the SSA under the facts of this case, this Court
is inclined to recognize that the primary responsibility in the
oversight of agency procedures lies with the Congress. Indeed,
one commentator has suggested that courts are sometimes
ill-equipped to pass judgment on the timeliness of agency
". . . [i]n most cases a court would not be
competent to make such a decision. While it might
be argued that a workable test could be based
upon the normal time required by this agency or
other agencies to process similar cases, it is
unlikely that a court could evolve viable
standards to determine the appropriate length of
time for any particular administrative action.
The court would have to work with a relative
standard such as `reasonable dispatch' rather
than making an essentially legislative judgment
that a particular administrative practice should
take no longer than a specified period of time.
However, a `reasonable dispatch' standard is not
likely to be susceptible to reasoned elaboration:
the large number of potentially relevant factors
and the difficulty of assessing the relative
importance of each variable seem to preclude
effective adjudication." Goldman, supra note 7, at
See also Deering Milliken, Inc. v. Johnston, 295 F.2d 856
(4th Cir. 1961); Note, Judicial Acceleration of the
Administrative: The Right to Relief from Unduly Protracted
Proceedings, 72 Yale L.J. 574-75 (1963).
In deciding that the various circumstances here present with
respect to the processing
of disability claims may "preclude effective adjudication,"
the Court is guided by the recent Seventh Circuit decision in
Wright v. Califano, 587 F.2d 345 (7th Cir. 1978). There,
plaintiff and the plaintiff class alleged that the lengthy
delays prevalent in the social security system violated the
mandates of the Act and the APA providing for hearings within a
reasonable time. The District Court had entered an order
requiring the SSA to either provide hearing and Appeals Council
review within certain time limits when requested by
unsuccessful applicants for old-age and survivor benefits, or
else make interim payments of benefits until a final
unfavorable decision has been rendered. On appeal, the Seventh
Circuit "reverse[d] on the grounds that the delays in question,
although undesirable, . . . are not so unreasonable as to
constitute a breach of the applicant's statutory rights
justifying the extraordinary remedy imposed." 587 F.2d at 347.
In reaching its decision, the Seventh Circuit recognized the
dual priorities inherent in social security administration:
. . [T]he legislative history of [§ 405]
demonstrates that in addition to its desire to
insure the speedy payment of benefits to eligible
applicants, Congress was also concerned with
maintaining the quality of administrative
adjudication and minimizing the payment of benefits
to ineligible applicants. 587 F.2d at 352.
The Court further noted that:
"Congress has committed the timing of hearings
and reviews to the discretion of the SSA. It has
continually monitored the appeals delay problem;
yet it has failed to prescribe mandatory time
limits, interim benefit payments or other
funding. Congress is not a party in this case. In
these circumstances, we believe the courts should
be hesitant to require such measures absent a due
process violation or clear violation of
Congressional intent." 587 F.2d at 353.
After carefully weighing all the relevant factors in that
case, the Seventh Circuit concluded:
Since administrative efficiency is not a
subject particularly suited to judicial
evaluation, the courts should be reluctant to
intervene in the administrative adjudicative
process, absent clear congressional guidelines or
a threat to a constitutional interest. Here,
given the good faith efforts of the SSA to cope
with the delay problem under severe resource
constraints and the prospect of future progress
in the reduction of processing times, we do not
believe that the present delays are so
unreasonable as to justify . . . the district
court's resort to its extraordinary equitable
powers to impose mandatory time limits and
presumptive eligibility. 587 F.2d at 353-54.
This Court is of the opinion that Wright is equally
applicable to the situation where, as here, plaintiffs
challenge delays in all levels of disability claims
determinations under the Act. Given defendant's good faith
efforts to reduce processing times, the demonstrated progress
in this regard, and the prospects for continued improvement,
the imposition of liability on the SSA or the fashioning of a
judicial remedy would here be inappropriate and unsupportable
by the evidence.
IV. THE DUE PROCESS CLAIM
The Seventh Circuit in Wright also addressed the issue of
whether "due process is no longer due process because past
due." Wright, supra, at 354. And as in Wright, this Court has
found that the record has failed to establish that the delays
complained of "are arbitrary or the result of some other
inexcusable circumstance." Wright, supra, at 354.
Further, it is clear that due process is not a rigid concept
"unrelated to time, place and circumstances." Cafeteria Workers
v. McElroy, 367 U.S. 886, 895, 81 S.Ct. 1743, 1748, 6 L.Ed.2d
1230 (1961); Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 481, 92 S.Ct.
2593, 2600, 33 L.Ed.2d 484 (1972). Recognizing the "flexible"
nature of due process and the need to scrutinize the affected
governmental and private interests in determining whether the
challenged administrative process
is constitutionally sufficient, the Seventh Circuit in
Wright found that the delays in question did not violate the
applicant's due process rights:
[I]n the name of due process as a flexible
standard, we are not justified in sanctioning the
imposition of unrealistic and arbitrary time
limitations on an agency which for good faith and
unarbitrary reasons has amply demonstrated its
present inability to comply. 587 F.2d at 356.
The Court went on to explain the rationale for its decision:
In view of the reasons for delay, nationwide in
scope, not individualized and the nature of the
particular benefits, a judicial fiat cannot help
the SSA or claimants. Although judicial
intervention may be required at some point, the
solution must come from the SSA itself with the
assistance of the Congress. Neither the Congress
nor the agency has been unmindful of this complex
problem. . . . Speed cannot be an end in itself.
587 F.2d at 356.
See also Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319
, 96 S.Ct. 893, 47
L.Ed.2d 18 (1976); Cf. Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603
S.Ct. 1367, 4 L.Ed.2d 1435 (1960).
This Court is again of the opinion that the careful
reasoning of Wright should extend to the facts of this case.
Although Wright involved old-age and survivor benefits under
the Act, we do not view the difference between those benefits
and the disability claims determinations here challenged to be
of sufficient import to warrant a harsh and unyielding
application of the flexible due process standard. Accordingly,
the Court is of the opinion that plaintiffs have not been
deprived of their rights of due process.
Though this is not the case where the implementation of a
"judicial fiat" would rectify an essentially administrative
problem, the Court is not unmindful of the substantial
hardships some applicants may suffer pending the processing of
their claims. The Court is sympathetic to the fate of
applicants subject to the frustrating delays often indigenous
to administrative proceedings. But that sympathy cannot, under
the facts of this case, justify the imposition of liability on
the SSA or resort to the peculiarly judicial solutions found
inappropriate by the Seventh Circuit in Wright.
Finally, plaintiffs assert that the Wright holding was
premised on the Seventh Circuit's displeasure with the remedies
there imposed by the district court and that there is nothing
objectionable about the "flexible" six month monitoring period
previously ordered by this Court. But while it is arguable that
this approach is less intrusive than those remedies disapproved
of in Wright, that fact does not alter the Court's conclusion
that, absent congressional guidance, judicial intervention is
not warranted under the totality of circumstances in this case.
There may indeed be situations where unjustified and outrageous
administrative delays constitute a "deprivation of property in
violation of due process" or a violation of an applicant's
statutory rights requiring judicial relief. Wright, supra, at
356. However, this is not that case.
WHEREFORE, there being no genuine issue of material fact
which need be resolved and for the foregoing reasons,
defendant-Secretary's renewed motion for summary judgment must
be, and the same hereby is GRANTED.