EFFECTIVE/PUBLICATION DATE: 11/09/90
SSR 90-5c: SECTIONS 216(i)(1)(B) AND 223(c)(1) AND (d)(1)(B) OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ACT (42 U.S.C. 416(i)(1)(B) AND 423(c)(1) AND (d)(1)(B)) DISABILITY INSURANCE BENEFITS -- INTERPRETING THE STATUTORY BLINDNESS PROVISION
20 CFR 404.130(e) and 404.1581
Adams v. Bowen, 872 F.2d 926 (9th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, _____ U.S. _____, 110 S. Ct. 151 (1989)
- The claimant, a 56-year-old diabetic, applied for disability insurance benefits under title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), contending that she was unable to work because of impaired vision. Although she did not have 20 quarters of coverage in the 40-quarter period ending with the quarter of alleged disability, she was fully insured and would have met the disability insured status requirements under section 223(c)(1) of the Act and would have been entitled to disability insurance benefits, had she established that she was statutorily blind. Section 216(i)(1)(B) of the Act provides that a person is statutorily blind if he or she has either central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of a correcting lens, or has a limitation in the fields of vision so that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than 20 degrees which is considered as having a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less. The evidence of record showed that the claimant's visual acuity in each eye was approximately 20/50 and her visual fields were intact. Because of a neurological impairment, however, the claimant had difficulty processing visual information when the environment around her was moving. She would trip and fall when she walked, and she could not see well enough to put a staple in the corner of a piece of paper. A neuropsychologist stated that, because of her condition, the claimant was in many ways worse off than someone who was blind. Moreover, three ophthalmologic specialists, including the claimant's attending physician, characterized her as being "functionally blind." The Secretary, nonetheless, denied the claimant's application because the evidence showed that she did not meet the statutory definition of blindness. The district court upheld the Secretary's denial, and the claimant appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She argued that, even though section 216(i)(1)(B) of the Act sets forth a specific definition of blindness for purposes of determining entitlement to disability insurance benefits, "Congress cannot have intended that disability benefits be awarded to those who are effectively blind because of damage to their eyes while denying benefits to those who suffer the same impairment because of damage to the brain." In essence, the claimant advocated the use of an equivalency requirement for the condition of blindness described in the statute. The court of appeals, however, rejected that argument and found that, because the language of the statute was clear, the definition of blindness should be read and applied literally. The court stated that there was nothing in the legislative history of the pertinent statutory provisions which suggested that Congress had intended anything but a narrow reading of the statute's unambiguous language. Finally, the court found that the Secretary's interpretation of the statute was entitled to due deference and that the Secretary had clearly interpreted it to require a strict application of the statutory definition. In upholding the district court's affirmation of the Secretary's decision, the court of appeals held that the Secretary's decision was supported by substantial evidence and that it was based on the application of a correct legal standard. The Supreme Court denied the claimant's request that it hear this case. CANBY, Circuit Judge:
CANBY, Circuit Judge:
Lucretia Adams appeals from the district court's decision upholding the determination of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (the Secretary) that Adams is not entitled to social security disability benefits 683 F.Supp. 231. The Secretary's decision to deny benefits "`will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or it is based on legal error.'" Brawner v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988) (quoting Green v. Heckler, 803 F.2d 529, 529 (9th Circ. 1986)). See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (1982). We review the district court's conclusion de novo. Gamer v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 815 F.2d 1275, 1278 (9th Cir. 1987).
The relevant facts are undisputed. Adams, a 56-year-old diabetic with impaired vision, has 32 quarters of coverage since 1980 and is "fully" insured under the requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 404.130 (1988). However, Adams does not have 20 quarters of coverage in the 40-quarter period ending with the quarter of alleged disability; therefore, she is not "specially" insured. Because Adams is "fully," but not "specially," insured, she must be statutorily blind in order to be eligible for disability benefits based upon her visual deficiency. 20 C.F.R. § 404.130(e). The statute defines blindness as follows:
- [T]he term "blindness" means central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of a correcting lens. An eye which is accompanied by a limitation in the fields of vision such that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than 20 degrees shall be considered for purposes in this paragraph as having a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less.
- 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1)(B) (Supp. IV 1986).
In December of 1980, Adams suffered a heart attack. During coronary bypass surgery several months later, Adams had a stroke leaving her totally blind with partial left-sided paralysis. Adams has recovered, largely successfully, from the effects of the stroke. She is no longer completely blind and has regained full use of all but her left hand.
Adams continues to suffer, however, from a neurological impairment affecting the "central processing of visual information." Although she has intact visual fields, and her visual acuity in each eye is approximately 20/50, Adams has difficulty processing visual information when the environment around her is moving. She cannot see well enough to put a staple in the corner of a piece of paper and must avoid brick sidewalks and escalators, which make her nauseous. She trips and falls while walking. The consulting neuropsychologist described her condition as follows:
- While her visual acuity may well be relatively intact, her ability to perceive and use that visual information in an efficient manner is highly compromised. She is severely impaired on all tasks involving visual scanning and visual planning and organization. In this regard, while she is not blind in the sense of having lost the sensation of vision, she is in many ways worse off than someone who is blind. That is because of her difficulty with visuoprattic function and her ability to use efficiently what information is available to her. At this time, she is vocationally disabled because of this lack of visual efficiency.
The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) noted that three opthalmologic specialists, including Adams' treating physician, agree that she is "functionally blind."
Despite Adams' functional blindness, the ALJ rejected her disability claim, reasoning that Adams does not strictly satisfy the highly specific statutory definition of blindness. The ALJ noted that Adams is clearly "visually disfunctional" and "would be found disabled if she were specially insured instead of only fully insured." The Appeals Council denied Adams' request fir review of the ALJ's decision.
Adams contends that, although 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1)(B) sets forth a specific definition of blindness for purposes of determining entitlement to disability benefits, "Congress cannot have intended that disability benefits be awarded to those who are effectively blind because of damage to their eyes while denying benefits to those who suffer the same impairment because of damage to the brain." In essence, Adams advocates the use of an equivalency requirement for the condition of blindness described in the statute. The Secretary, on the other hand, argues that there is nothing in the language of the statute or the legislative history "suggesting that Congress intended the Secretary to apply any standard other than the strict definition in the statute." Furthermore, the Secretary contends that the agency's interpretation of the statute and the implementing regulation are entitled to great deference. This is a case of first impression.
The basic rules of statutory construction are long-standing and well-settled:
- "In construing a statute in a case of first impression, we look to the traditional signposts of statutory construction: first, the language of the statute itself; second, its legislative history, and as an aid in interpreting Congress' intent, the interpretation given to it by its administering agency."
Funbus Systems, Inc. v. California Pub. Util. Comm'n, 801 F.2d 1120, 1125-26 (9th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted). See Washington State Dep't of Game v. I.C.C., 829 F.2d 877, 879 (9th Cir. 1987). 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1)(B) presents a clear definition of what blindness "means." "As a rule, `[a] definition which declares what a term "means" . . .excludes any meaning that is not stated.'" Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379, 392-93 n. 10, 99 S.Ct. 675, 684 n. 10, 58 L.Ed.2d 596 (1979) (quoting 2A C. Sands, Statutes and Statutory Construction § 47.07 (4th ed. Supp.1978)). See, e.g., Johns-Manville Corp. v. United States, 855 F.2d 1556, 1559 (Fed.Cir.1988), cert. denied, _____ U.S. _____, 109 S.Ct. 1342, 103 L.Ed.2d 811 (1989)); Leber v. Pennsylvania Dep't of Envtl. Resources, 780 F.2d 372, 376 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 478 U.S. 1004, 106 S.Ct. 3294, 92 L.Ed.2d 710 (1986). Because the language of the statute is clear, the definition of blindness should be read and applied literally.
Nothing in the legislative history of the Social Security Amendments of 1967, including Section 416(i)(1)(B), suggests that Congress intended anything but a narrow reading of the statute's unambiguous language. See Escobar Ruiz v. INS, 838 F.2d 1020, 1023 (9th Cir. 1988) (en banc) (even if a statute is plain and unambiguous, courts may look to see if there is clearly expressed legislative intent contrary to the language); California v. Kleppe, 604 F.2d 1187, 1194 (9th Cir. 1979) ("`[E]ven the most basic general principles of statutory construction must yield to clear contrary evidence of legislative intent.'") (quoting National R.R. Passenger Corp. v. National Ass'n of R.R. Passengers Corp. v. National Ass'n of R.R. Passengers, 414 U.S. 453, 458, 94 S.Ct. 690, 693, 38 L.Ed.2d 646 (1974)). The Senate Report states only that "[i]n order to qualify for benefits a person would have to have vision of 20/200 or less." See 1967 U.S. Code Cong. & Adm. News 2834, 2842, 2886-87. Although the statute purposely "liberalized" the previous definition of blindness "[i]n recognition of the economic hardships faced by blind persons," id. at 2886, 3200, there is no indication that the equivalency requirement urged by Adams was intended or even contemplated by Congress. Congress chose a certain and exact rule; we are reluctant to engraft upon it a more flexible standard that is inherently more difficult to administer.
Finally, the rules of statutory construction require us to consider the Secretary's interpretation of the statute. "The interpretation of statutes and regulations by an agency charged with their administration is entitled to due deference and should be accepted unless demonstrably irrational or clearly contrary to the plain meaning." Nevitt v. United States, 828 F.2d 1405, 1406-07 (9th Cir. 1987) (citing Udall v. Tallman, 380 U.S. 1, 85 S.Ct. 792, 13 L.Ed.2d 616 (1965)). See also Gardebring v. Jenkins, 485 U.S. 415, 108 S.Ct. 1306, 1314, 99 L.Ed.2d 515 (1988) (deference to Secretary's reading of agency's regulation). While, as Adams points out, this is not a case in which the Secretary has issued an interpretative regulation, we can evaluate the Secretary's interpretation as demonstrated by his position in this litigation and Section 26005.001 of the Secretary's Program Operations Manual System dealing with statutory blindness. The Secretary clearly interprets the statute to require a strict application of the statutory definition.
The Secretary's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is based on the application of a correct legal standard.
 The language of the corresponding regulation simply tracks the statute:
We will consider you blind under the law for a period of disability and for payment of disability insurance benefits if we determine that you are statutorily blind. Statutory blindness is defined in the law as central visual acuity of 20/200 or less. . . in the better eye with the use of correcting lens. An eye which has a limitation in the field of vision so that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no grater than 20 degrees is considered to have a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1581 (1988).
 The Senate Report does note that "[t]his definition of blindness is the definition in the Internal Revenue Code and is used by a number of governmental and private agencies." 1967 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News 2886. See I.R.C. § 151(d)(3) (1982) (repealed in 1986; preceded by I.R.C. § 25(b)(1)(C)(iii) (1948) and I.R.C. § 25(y) (1944)). Prior interpretations of Section 151(d)(3) or its predecessors might therefore be indicative of congressional intent because "[i]t is always appropriate to assume that our elected representatives, like other citizens, know the law . . . ." Cannon v. University of Chicago, 441 U.S. 677, 696-97, 99 S.Ct. 1946, 1957-58, 60 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979). See also Goodyear Atomic Corp. v. Miller, 486 U.S. 174, 108 S.Ct. 1704, 1711-12, 100 L.Ed.2d 158 (1988); Blitz v. Donovan, 740 F.2d 1241, 1245 (D.C.Cir. 1984).
However, the only case dealing with the application of Section 151(d)(3) or its predecessors to a visual impairment not meeting the strict statutory definition appears to be Hollman v. Commissioner, 38 T.C. 251 (1962). Although the holding in Hollman supports Adams' functional blindness interpretation generally, id. at 258, 262, it is not sufficient to provide a clear insight into legislative intent.