When is a Motion for a Judgment on the Pleadings (possibly) not a Motion for a Judgment on the Pleadings? When it is filed in a Social Security Disability case in federal court. Why? Because a Motion for a Judgment on the Pleadings has no place in such a case. That is my opinion, at least. Let me explain.
Most people seeking Social Security Disability benefits have disability hearings before administrative law judges that work for the Social Security Administration. A person whose claim has been denied after a hearing, and who has exhausted his administrative appeal remedies, can seek court review of that denial.
Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act allows a person in this situation to file a civil action against the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration in United States District Court. It provides that the District Court “shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security….”
A civil action against the Commissioner of Social Security begins the way all civil actions begin. The Plaintiff files a complaint and a summons and complaint are served on the Defendant. The Defendant then files an answer. The rest of the proceedings, however, are different.
The Commissioner provides the Court with a transcript of the administrative record, which contains all of the evidence that was considered by the administrative law judge that denied the Plaintiff’s disability claim.
In the Middle District of North Carolina, the District Court issues an order directing the Plaintiff to “file a motion for a judgment reversing or modifying the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, or remanding the cause for a rehearing,” along with a supporting brief. The Defendant is directed to “file a motion for a judgment affirming the decision of the Commissioner” with a supporting brief.
There usually is no hearing before the Court in the Middle District. The Court issues a judgment based on a review of the motions and briefs and a review of the evidence in the administrative record.
I always file a Motion to Reverse the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security because that is the language used in the Court’s briefing order. The government attorneys that represent the Commissioner, however, normally file a Motion for a Judgment on the Pleadings.
Are the government attorneys filing a correct motion? I do not think so. Why? I have three reasons:
First, a Motion for a Judgment on the Pleadings is based only on the pleadings: the complaint, answer, etc. When ruling on such a motion, the Court must consider only the assertions made by the parties in the pleadings, without review of any evidence. There must be no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
In a Social Security Disability case, however, the Court must consider evidence in the administrative record, which is beyond the scope of the factual matters asserted in the pleadings. Remember, section 405(g) of the Social Security Act directs the District Court to base its judgment on the both the pleadings AND the transcript of the administrative record. The Court is not authorized to issue a judgment based solely on the pleadings.
Second, there are often genuine issues of material fact in Social Security Disability cases. For example, I recently had a case that centered on the factual issue of whether the Plaintiff could use his congenitally deformed hand to grip. I argued that the medical evidence demonstrated that my client could not grip with his claw-like hand that is missing multiple fingers. The government attorneys argued the opposite. There was a genuine dispute regarding a material fact in this case.
Third, a Motion for a Judgment on the Pleadings is a pre-trial motion. The District Court in a Social Security Disability case, however, functions as an appellate court. It is charged with reviewing the evidence in the administrative record to determine whether the hearing decision of the administrative law judge is supported by substantial evidence and whether any legal errors were committed.
The District Court does not conduct a de novo review of the Plaintiff’s disability claim, so there is no trial. It customarily does not even hold a motion hearing in the Middle District. So the Court does not function as a trial court, despite the fact that the case originates as a civil action.
Why does the Middle District allow government attorneys to file Motions for a Judgment on the Pleadings in Social Security Disability cases? Maybe because there is a lack of uniformity in the way that United States District Courts in different judicial districts process Social Security Disability cases.
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not address civil actions in Social Security Disability cases. Likewise, the Local Rules of Procedure for the Middle District, for example, do not set forth specific rules for these cases. A civil action in a Social Security Disability case is a hybrid combination of a civil action and an appellate case.
Courts in some districts allow Motions for a Judgment on the Pleadings, some require Motions for Summary Judgment, and some allow Motions for a Judgment Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner. Some District Court judges hold motion hearings. Most do not.
But as I have already stated, I do not believe that the Social Security Act allows a judgment on the pleadings and the District Court always considers evidence outside the pleadings before issuing a judgment. So is a Motion for a Judgment on the Pleadings filed by a government attorney really a Motion for a Judgment on the Pleadings?
Rule 12(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that when a Motion for a Judgment on the Pleadings is filed and “matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56.”
Because the District Court bases its judgment in a Social Security Disability case on its review of the evidence in the administrative record, it effectively treats government Motions for a Judgment on the Pleadings as Motions for Summary Judgment.
I am not sure, however, that a Motion for Summary Judgment is appropriate in a Social Security Disability case either. Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that the Court shall grant summary judgment only if the moving party can show “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.”
As we have seen, civil actions in Social Security Disability cases often involve disputes between the parties about material facts. But that’s a potential topic for another day.