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Bacon v. Sullivan

argued: May 18, 1992.

JANE C. BACON, APPELLANT
v.
LOUIS W. SULLIVAN, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil No. 89-05942)

Before: Hutchinson, Cowen and Garth, Circuit Judges

Author: Cowen

Opinion OF THE COURT

COWEN, Circuit Judge.

This is an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (1988) seeking review and reversal of a decision of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, denying appellant's claim for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. We are asked to determine whether the district court had jurisdiction to review the Appeals Council's decision not to entertain Jane Bacon's appeal, which was filed one day late. Because the district court lacked jurisdiction to review this matter, the case must be dismissed.

I.

Jane Bacon lost the use of her left arm in 1978 and has had serious physical and emotional problems since that time, including diabetes, cataracts, infections and disabling depression. She lost her job after the injury to her arm, and although she looked for new work, she could no longer type and was unable to obtain other employment. Bacon applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits and had a hearing before an administrative law Judge (ALJ) in November 1987. To receive disability insurance benefits, Bacon had to prove that she was disabled prior to December 31, 1982, the date her status as an insured expired. In December 1987, the ALJ found the onset date of her disability to be November 1984 when she developed cataracts, and denied her claim for disability insurance benefits. Bacon appealed this decision to the Social Security Appeals Council, which remanded her case back to the ALJ for further fact-finding regarding Bacon's ability to work prior to 1982. On remand the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert who had not testified previously, and on October 27, 1988 issued a decision again finding Bacon disabled as of November 1984, after her insured status expired, and thus denied her disability benefits.

Bacon appealed to the Appeals Council a second time, submitting the appropriate Social Security form and a four-page letter brief dated January 3, 1989. Three and a half months later, the Appeals Council notified Bacon for the first time that there was a problem with her appeal. A letter from a hearing analyst stated that the request for review had been postmarked on January 4, 1989 and was thus filed one day after the 60-day deadline for filing a request for review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.968(a)(1)(1991). Bacon was informed that unless good cause was shown for the day late filing, her request for review would be dismissed. Bacon's attorney wrote back that the late filing was due to an "inadvertent and inexplicable" oversight in the mailroom at her office. On June 19, 1989, the Appeals Council dismissed Bacon's request under 20 C.F.R. § 404.971 (1991), finding that no good cause existed to extend her time for filing a request for review.

Bacon filed a complaint in district court seeking review of the dismissal by the Appeals Council. The Secretary moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that by not timely presenting her appeal to the Appeals Council, Bacon failed to exhaust her administrative remedies, and consequently there was no reviewable "final decision" for the purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On February 5, 1990, the district court found that Bacon showed good cause for filing her untimely request. The district court denied the Secretary's motion to dismiss and remanded the case back to the Appeals Council to decide the case on the merits. On August 14, 1990, the Appeals Council denied Bacon's claim on the merits and upheld the ALJ's decision of October 27, 1988. Again Bacon appealed to the district court to review the Appeals Council's decision. On this second appeal to the district court, both Bacon and the Secretary filed cross- motions for summary judgment. The district court granted summary judgment on the merits in favor of the Secretary. Bacon then filed a motion for reconsideration, which the district court denied. This appeal followed.

Once again the Secretary raises the original defense he raised when first before the district court, i.e., that the district court lacked jurisdiction to review the Appeals Council decision not to consider an untimely appeal. This court has jurisdiction to review the district court's final order under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1988).

II.

The central issue in this case is whether the district court had jurisdiction to review the Appeals Council's decision not to entertain Bacon's appeal, which was filed one day late. Before reaching the order of the district court which granted summary judgment on the merits in favor of the Secretary, we must first consider whether the district court had jurisdiction to review the matter in the first place. We hold that because the Appeals Council's decision to refrain from considering Bacon's untimely request for review was not a "final decision" of the Secretary subject to judicial review, we must vacate both the judgment of the district court which found good cause for Bacon's untimely filing and its judgment which adjudicated the matter on the merits.

Federal courts are not courts of general jurisdiction; they have only power that is authorized by Article III of the Constitution and statutes enacted by Congress pursuant to that Article. Bender v. Williamsport Area School Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 541, 89 L. Ed. 2d 501, 106 S. Ct. 1326 (1986). Thus, Congress may prescribe the procedures and conditions under which federal courts may review administrative orders. Tacoma v. Taxpayers of Tacoma, 357 U.S. 320, 336, 2 L. Ed. 2d 1345, 78 S. Ct. 1209 (1958). "Every federal appellate court has a special obligation to 'satisfy itself not only of its own jurisdiction, but also that of the lower courts in a cause under review,' even though the parties are prepared to concede it." Bender, 475 U.S. at 541 (citation omitted). If the record discloses that the district court was without jurisdiction to review Bacon's appeal, this court can raise the question of its and the district court's jurisdiction at any time during the course of the judicial process. When the lower federal court lacks jurisdiction, "we have jurisdiction on appeal, not of the merits but merely for the purpose of correcting the error of the lower court in entertaining the suit." United States v. Corrick, 298 U.S. 435, 440, 80 L. Ed. 1263, 56 S. Ct. 829 (1936).

A.

The threshold question in this case is whether the decision of the Appeals Council not to consider Bacon's untimely request for review was a "final decision" of the Secretary subject to judicial review ...


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