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High Court Finds No Problem in SSA Expert's 'Proof'

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By George Khoury, Esq. on April 04, 2019 10:13 AM

The recent SCOTUS decision in Biestek v. Berryhill may have flown under most lawyers' radars as it concerned a Social Security Administration's ALJ's determination of a petitioner's claim for disability benefits, but it contains a vibrant analysis and two separate dissents with one curious pair of allies.

The issues involved in the Biestek case actually present a rather novel discussion of the substantial evidence standard, and whether an expert's testimony alone, without supporting documentation, can satisfy a substantial evidence standard. Unfortunately for the SSA petitioner, the High Court held that the SSA's ALJ's ruling was not an error, as the ALJ's factual determination that the expert's testimony was sufficient can be based on extrinsic factors, not necessarily in the record.

What's the Issue?

At issue in the underlying case was whether Biestek would qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. At the SSA level, the ALJ ruled that Biestek would not be eligible until he turned 50 years old, because he could perform sedentary jobs in his current condition. That ruling was based on the SSA's vocational rehabilitation expert's testimony that there were currently over 350,000 jobs in nation where a person with Mr. Biestek's condition could do. Mr. Biestek's attorney pressed the expert for the basis of that opinion and learned that it was premised upon their own research. When asked to produce it, both the expert and ALJ refused to allow it. Nevertheless, despite not having supporting documentation to support the expert's testimony, the ALJ effectively ruled against a large portion of Mr. Biestek's claim based on that same testimony.

What's the Holding?

The majority opinion ruled that the ALJ did not err in finding the expert's testimony credible, nor did it err in finding that it met the SSA's own standards. Notably though, both dissents agree that the majority and the ALJ incorrectly applied the SSA's own standard which would require the expert's testimony to be substantiated to meet the SSA's own substantial evidence standard.

Curiously, Justice Gorsuch wrote a dissent, in which Justice Ginsburg joined. In that dissent, Justice Gorsuch laments the majority's position, explaining that the Justices have the opportunity and duty to right the wrong done by the ALJ. Additionally, Justice Sotomayor issued a separate dissent, but in it, she states that she is in agreement, in large part, with Justice Gorsuch's dissent.

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