SSR 96-1p



PURPOSE: To clarify longstanding policy that, unless and until a Social Security Acquiescence Ruling (AR) is issued determining that a final circuit court holding conflicts with the Agency's interpretation of the Social Security Act or regulations and explaining how SSA will apply such a holding, SSA decisionmakers continue to be bound by SSA's nationwide policy, rather than the court's holding, in adjudicating other claims within that circuit court's jurisdiction. This Ruling does not in any way modify SSA's acquiescence policy to which the Agency continues to remain firmly committed, but instead serves to emphasize consistent adjudication in the programs SSA administers. This Ruling is also issued to clarify longstanding Agency policy that, despite a district court decision which may conflict with SSA's interpretation of the Social Security Act or regulations, SSA adjudicators will continue to apply SSA's nationwide policy when adjudicating other claims within that district court's jurisdiction unless the court directs otherwise.

CITATIONS (AUTHORITY): Sections 205(a), 702(a)(5) and 1631(d) of the Social Security Act; Sections 413(b), 426(a) and 508 of the Black Lung Benefits Act; Regulations No. 4, section 404.985; Regulations No. 10, section 410.670c; Regulations No. 16, section 416.1485; Regulations No. 22, section 422.406.

BACKGROUND: Final regulations on the application of circuit court law in the Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, and Black Lung programs were published in the Federal Register on January 11, 1990 (55 FR 1012). SSA first adopted the acquiescence policy set forth in these rules in 1985, with the details evolving over the next 5 years. These rules explain how SSA acquiesces in circuit court law which conflicts with Agency policy; it does so by issuing an AR for a final circuit court decision which SSA determines is in conflict with the Agency's interpretation of the Social Security Act or regulations. 20 CFR 404.985(b), 410.670c(b) and 416.1485(b). The AR, which is issued through publication in the Federal Register, describes the administrative case and the court decision, identifies the issue(s), explains how the court decision differs from SSA policy, and explains how SSA will apply the court holding, instead of its nationwide policy, when deciding claims within the applicable circuit. ARs apply at all steps in the administrative process within the applicable circuit unless the court decision, by its nature, applies only at certain steps in this process. In the latter case, the AR may be so limited.

As of the effective date of this Ruling, SSA had issued a total of 62 ARs, averaging about 3-4 ARs per year in recent years; 42 of those ARs are still in effect. The majority of the ARs issued by SSA to date have dealt with nondisability issues, although a significant portion have dealt directly with the disability determination process. Decisions for which ARs are issued often involve complex and difficult issues. The court's holding may be unclear in its scope and susceptible to differing interpretations. Despite these difficulties, no AR has been found to be inadequate by the circuit court which issued the underlying decision.

POLICY INTERPRETATION: Unless and until an AR for a circuit court holding has been issued, SSA adjudicates other claims within that circuit by applying its nationwide policy. The preamble to the final acquiescence regulations published on January 11, 1990, explained the basis for this approach in responding to a public comment suggesting that administrative law judges (ALJs) and the Appeals Council should be allowed to apply circuit court holdings without the benefit of an Acquiescence Ruling:

[W]e have not adopted this comment. First, under this final acquiescence policy, Acquiescence Rulings apply to all levels of adjudication, not only to the ALJ and Appeals Council levels, unless a holding by its nature applies only to certain levels of adjudication. Thus, the approach suggested in this comment would create different standards of adjudication at the different levels of administrative review. Second, interpreting and applying a circuit court holding is not always a simple matter, as we noted previously.[1] Finally, by statute, establishing policy is the Secretary's[2] responsibility; adjudicators are responsible for applying that policy to the facts in any given case. Therefore, we believe that to ensure the uniform and consistent adjudication necessary in the administration of a national program, the agency must analyze court decisions and provide adjudicators as specific a statement as possible explaining the agency's interpretation of a court of appeals holding, as well as providing direction on how to apply the holding in the course of adjudication.

55 FR 1013 (1990).

As explained in SSA's regulations at 20 CFR 404.985(b), 410.670c(b), and 416.1485(b), if SSA makes an administrative determination or decision on a claim between the date of a circuit court decision and the date of issuance of an AR for that decision, the claimant, upon request, is permitted to have the claim readjudicated by demonstrating that application of the AR could change the result. Thus, as explained in the preamble to the acquiescence regulations, a readjudication procedure is provided which allows a claimant, whose application was adjudicated during the interim period between a circuit court decision and the issuance of an AR for that decision, to seek immediate application of the AR once it is issued, without the necessity of appeal. 55 FR 1013 (1990).

Finally, in accordance with its regulations, SSA acquiesces only in decisions of the Federal circuit courts, and not in decisions of Federal district courts within a circuit. Thus, despite a district court decision which may conflict with SSA's interpretation of the Social Security Act or regulations, SSA adjudicators will continue to apply SSA's nationwide policy when adjudicating other claims within that district court's jurisdiction unless the court directs otherwise such as may occur in a class action.

EFFECTIVE DATE: This Ruling, which reflects longstanding procedures which SSA continues to believe represent the most effective and fair way to implement its acquiescence policy, is effective upon publication in the Federal Register. This Ruling does not apply to the claims of New York disability claimants who are covered by the court-approved settlement in Stieberger v. Sullivan.

[1] The preamble previously noted that, "Whether or not the holding of a particular circuit court decision `conflicts' with our policy is not always clear . . ." 55 FR 1012 (1990).

[2] As a result of Pub. L. 103-296, the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994, which made SSA an independent agency separate from the Department of Health and Human Services effective March 31, 1995, the responsibility for establishing policy now resides with the Commissioner of Social Security, rather than the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

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