Article Title

Overcoming Gridlock: Campbell After a Quarter-Century and Bureaucratically Rational Gap-Filling in Mass Justice Adjudication in the Social Security Administration's Disability Programs





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The Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) disability benefit programs utilize the largest adjudicative system in the western world. Yale Law Professor Jerry Mashaw’s two comprehensive studies of the SSA’s processes yielded a theory of bureaucratic rationality to advance accuracy, consistency, and baseline fairness through hierarchical adherence to centrally-formulated rules in “mass justice” SSA adjudication. SSA adopted its “grid” regulations in furtherance of Mashaw’s thesis to systematize the process of determining disability claimants’ abilities to adjust to other work. In 1983, the Supreme Court sustained SSA’s grid in Heckler v. Campbell, an opinion administrative law scholars identify as one of the most influential in administrative law. While elucidating the principles supporting agencies’ authority to resolve some factual issues in advance of case-by-case adjudication through rulemaking and rigid decisional rules, notwithstanding the statutory requirement of individualized decisionmaking, the Campbell Court relied in part on the presence of gaps in the grid—exceptions requiring more flexible and individualized adjudicative treatment. This includes a common exception for claimants with non-exertional limitations.

However, SSA’s ad hoc, adjudicative methodology where grid exceptions are present has undermined the consistency and bureaucratic rationality the grid system was intended to ensure, sanctioned discriminatory and disadvantaged treatment of claimants with non-exertional impairments and limitations, and deeply divided the circuits. Courts and agency adjudicators differ within and among themselves on such fundamental questions as: (1) What is the proper methodology for using the grid’s administratively-noticed occupational and job bases as a framework or guide on work adjustment questions in grid exception cases and whether such methodology is applicable when additional vocational or labor market evidence is procured?; and (2) Under what circumstances may adjudicators deny a claim without additional vocational or labor market evidence by presuming or taking administrative notice of the lack of sufficient diminution or erosion of the grid’s job bases due to the presence of considerations not factored into the grid’s promulgation, such as non-exertional limitations?

This Article develops approaches for resolving both of these major grid “gap” issues. First, it argues that courts should compel SSA to utilize interpretive guidance on the proper use of the grid’s adjudicative framework in work adjustment assessments. This entails interpreting that guidance to mandate use of the grid’s occupational and job base numbers—not ad hoc, adjudicative gestalt—as the proper measure of the “significant” quantum of performable jobs below which a claimant is deemed unable to make a sufficient work adjustment in grid exception cases. This would ensure greater fairness, consistency, and nondiscriminatory treatment of similarly situated claimants and give proper effect to statutory vocational factors.

Second, this Article advocates that the Supreme Court compel compliance with settled administrative notice doctrine to ensure procedural fairness and prevent standardless intuitive decisionmaking. At a minimum, this would require constraining adjudicators from taking unrebuttable administrative notice that the grid’s job bases have not been significantly eroded by the presence of non-trivial, non-exertional limitations in making work adjustment assessments.

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