In Heckler v. Day the Supreme Court reviewed a Second Circuit decision to uphold a district court order imposing time limits on initial and reconsideration determinations by the State agency and ALJ hearings and ordering payment of interim benefits to any claimant who did not receive his determination or hearing within the prescribed time limits.
The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the imposition of mandatory deadlines on a class-wide basis would jeopardize the quality and uniformity of agency decisions. Yet, the Supreme Court specifically left open the question of whether interim benefits could be awarded in individual cases. Heckler v. Day, 467 U.S.104, 119, 81 L. Ed. 2d 88, 104 S. Ct. 2249 n.34 (1984).
The Heckler Court made clear that it objected to the mandatory deadlines because they were "unduly intrusive" upon the workings of the Administration; but the same is not true of interim benefits. The award of interim benefits, subject to curative overpayment and recoupment procedures, places no restrictions on the Administration's decision-making authority, nor does such award impair the Administration's ability to reach careful, reasoned decisions. Moreover, the Heckler court explicitly stated that the exercise of equitable discretion on an individual, case by case basis was not precluded by its ruling. Heckler, supra, 467 U.S. at 119 n.33 ("We make clear that nothing in this opinion precludes the proper use of injunctive relief to remedy individual violations of Section 405(b)").
For these reasons, this court rejects the Secretary's suggestion that Heckler v. Day established a "blanket prohibition" of interim benefit awards during the pendency of disability applications.
Finally, the Secretary argues that an award of interim benefits is barred by the Social Security Act in the absence of specific Congressional authorization, since Congress has in recent years amended the Act to provide for interim benefits under specific circumstances not present here. On this point the court finds persuasive, and adopts, the Second Circuit's reasoning in City of New York v. Heckler, 742 F.2d 729, 740 (2nd Cir 1984).
In that case the Second Circuit held:
"We do not construe the recent amendment to Section 223 of the Act . . . codified at 42 U.S.C. Section 423(g) . . ., as indicating a congressional understanding that federal courts lacked remedial power to order the award of interim benefits in appropriate circumstances . . . We see no reason to think that Congress, in authorizing interim benefits during administrative appeals, believed that such benefits were not available during pursuit of judicial remedies. The more plausible interpretation is that Congress was anxious to fill a gap and ensure continuity of benefits on the understanding that, after administrative remedies were pursued, courts had adequate authority to continue interim benefits". 742 F.2d at 740.
This court does not read the lack of specific Congressional authorization as a restriction on the court's inherent equitable power.
Having determined that this court may in its discretion award interim benefits, it remains to decide whether such equitable relief is warranted on these facts.
The procedural history outlined above is replete with examples of egregious delay. The nearly 12 month lapse between this court's remand order and the first post-remand evidentiary hearing is but one example of the unreasonable disregard of plaintiff's interest in an expeditious resolution of her disability application.
The loss of plaintiff's testimony due to an inaudible tape recording and the unavailability of Administration medical advisors, while inadvertent, nevertheless unnecessarily prolongs the review process forcing plaintiff to bear the burden of continued delay.
While cognizant of the administrative difficulties which plague the Social Security Administration, this court cannot condone the nearly two year delay between its June 1984 remand order and the ALJ's November 1986 recommended decision.
In light of the excessive delay plaintiff has endured, this court will order interim benefit payments to begin immediately. Awarding interim benefits provides an equitable solution to the difficult problem of balancing administrative difficulties and the applicant's needs.
Particularly where, as here, the ALJ has recommended that plaintiff be entitled to disability benefits as of July 1, 1982 this court believes interim benefits are appropriate. In the event that the Appeals Council rejects this recommended decision, and determines that plaintiff is not disabled, the interim benefits shall cease and the standard overpayment and recoupment procedures for any Social Security action shall apply.
Plaintiff's motion for interim benefits is granted pursuant to the conditions set forth in the accompanying order.
Date: March 2, 1987
This matter having been opened to the court on plaintiff's motion for an award of interim benefits pending the final decision on her disability benefits application by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and this court having considered the submissions of both parties and for the reasons set forth in the accompanying opinion filed this day,
IT IS this 2 day of March 1987 hereby
1. Interim benefits shall be paid to the plaintiff monthly, beginning immediately, in the amount equal to what the plaintiff would receive if found eligible for the benefits she is claiming.
2. These interim benefits shall cease in the event that the Appeals Council again rejects plaintiff's claim. In the event that such adverse decision is filed in the middle of the month, the plaintiff will be entitled to full benefits for that month.
3. If in a final adjudication it is determined that the benefits paid were not due the plaintiff, the same overpayment and recoupment procedures apply as are available to any recipient of benefits from the Social Security Administration.
H. LEE SAROKIN, U.S.D.J.