Andrew Thomason Jan. 28, 2015, 11:30am

Rules for Social Security Administration employees might lower the quality of their work and cost the federal government money, but that doesn’t make the rules illegal, according to a recent federal appeals court ruling.

Several administrative law judges, along with their union, the Association of Administrative Law Judges, and others, appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals after a federal judge in Chicago dismissed their lawsuit against Carolyn Colvin, the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

Social security administrative law judges are responsible for, among other things, ruling on whether social security disability claims are legitimate and if applicants get monetary assistance.

In their suit, they claimed that the midst of a backlog of disability cases, the administration created a new requirement in which the administrative law judges had to decide at least 500 social security disability cases annually.

More than half of these judges were deciding less than 500 cases a year prior to the requirement.

The judges and unions argued that deciding whether someone should be denied social security disability benefits takes time, and the new rule makes it more likely an administrative law judge would approve such requests.

They further argued that the quota and the environment it created violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which provides that administrative law judges won’t be directed or supervised by other employees when deciding a case.

In dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman reasoned that the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA), which created a system for federal employees to address grievances like prohibited changes to duties and responsibilities, preempts the APA.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Coleman's ruling on Jan. 23. Judge Richard Posner wrote the seven-page opinion. Judges Kenneth Ripple and Michael Kanne concurred, with Ripple writing separately to address his concerns with the majority's approach to the issue.

The panel specifically addressed the plaintiffs’ argument that the quota changes the impartiality of the system because it takes less time and would be easier for judges to award social security disability benefits.

“Suppose the Social Security Administration hired more administrative law judges, thus reducing the workload of each one," Posner wrote. "With less pressure to grant benefits in order to make the quota, the administrative law judges might, because they were spending more time on each case, increase the fraction of benefit denials. But who would argue that increasing a work force is an actionable interference with the workers’ decisional independence?”

Posner went on to provide another example to back up the panel's decision to affirm the lower court's dismissal.

"In the 1960s and 1970s there were very steep increases in federal court caseloads, and increases in the number of judgeships lagged. So each judge had to work harder. Maybe some judges responded by dismissing more cases earlier than they would have preferred to do. Would this have meant that by failing to increase the number of judges in proportion to the increase in caseload, the government was interfering with federal judges’ decisional independence?"

"The answer is no, and it is no here as well and were it otherwise the courts would be flooded with cases brought by civil servants complaining that, as an incidental and unintended effect of a change in their working conditions, they had decided to reduce the amount of effort they devoted to each task they were assigned."

Posner added, "An incidental and unintentional effect of a change in working conditions is not actionable under the Administrative Procedure Act."

Although he concurred with the ruling, Ripple wrote separately to express his skepticism with the approach taken in the panel's opinion.

Ripple explained that he believes his colleague's approach sets up the unwanted situation where the federal courts will have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a case regarding decisional independence falls under the APA or the CSRA.

“It would require judges to dig into the subjective intent of executive and agency officials. It is difficult to imagine how such an inquiry would be compatible with Congress’s manifest intent in the CSRA to limit judicial intrusion into the day-to-day management of executive and regulatory government,” Ripple wrote.

He also said that just because the plaintiffs might not have a statutory path to addressing their concerns does not mean they do not have a constitutional one.

“I cannot accept even the slightest intimation that the exercise of legislative power, even with the most benign of motivations, could not constitute a significant constitutional impairment,” Ripple wrote.

"That the courts of the Third Article cannot be burdened with non-adjudicatory responsibilities has long been established. I see no reason why we should take as a given that those same courts ever can be similarly impaired by being deprived of the tools necessary to achieve their assigned task with integrity."

Saying that "[a]dministrative law judges affect directly the lives of millions" and are behind the "administrative process that most Americans have any contact with the American justice system," Ripple stressed that the tasks of these judges are "time-consuming and demand great attention to detail."

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