Nettleton v. Astrue
ORDER: Defendant's Motion 21 for Judgment is GRANTED in part; the Recommended Ruling 24 is ADOPTED in full. Signed by Judge Janet Bond Arterton on 4/3/2013. (Bonneau, J)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT
KAREN S. NETTELTON,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF
Civil No. 3:11cv1357 (JBA)
April 3, 2013
RULING ON DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO REMAND AND ON DEFENDANT’S
OBJECTIONS TO THE RECOMMENDED RULING
On February 27, 2012, Magistrate Judge Margolis issued a Recommended Ruling
[Doc. # 24] (“Rec. Ruling”), granting in part Defendant’s Motion [Doc. # 21] to Remand.
On March 12, 2012 Defendant filed a timely objection [Doc. # 25] to the Recommended
Ruling, arguing that Magistrate Judge Margolis erred in remanding the case to the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for only the limited purpose of a re–hearing to solicit
medical expert testimony as to the onset date of Plaintiff’s disability. For the following
reasons, based on a de novo review, Defendant’s objection is overruled, and the
Recommended Ruling is adopted in full.
The complicated factual and procedural background of this action is presented in
detail on pages one through three of the Recommended Ruling, which are incorporated
by reference herein. Briefly, this action arose out of Plaintiff’s challenge to Defendant’s
determination that she is not entitled to disability insurance benefits. In an earlier
litigation, Nettleton v. Astrue, No. 3:09cv93, (“Nettleton I”), Plaintiff directly contested the
Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) finding that she was not disabled prior to July 16,
2001. Magistrate Judge Fitzsimmons remanded that action in order for the ALJ to solicit
testimony from a medical advisor as to the onset of Plaintiff’s disability (see Nettleton I,
Rec. Ruling [Doc. # 34]), and Judge Squatrito adopted Magistrate Judge Fitzsimmons’s
Recommended Ruling over Defendant’s objection after a de novo review (see Nettleton I,
Aug. 30, 2010 Order [Doc. # 36]). Contrary to the court’s order, however, on remand, the
Appeals Council reaffirmed the finding that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to July 16,
2001 without soliciting additional testimony from a medical advisor. (See Compl. [Doc.
# 1] ¶ 21.) Plaintiff then commenced this action, asserting that the action taken by the
Appeals Council violated the court’s order in Nettleton I.
The parties agree that the case should be remanded for the purpose of complying
with Judge Squatrito’s August 30, 2010 Order. However, Defendant also seeks remand
for the additional purpose of re–evaluating the issue of Plaintiff’s substantial gainful
activity after the date of Plaintiff’s last insured. (See Def.’s Mot. Remand [Doc # 21].) In
her Recommended Ruling, Magistrate Judge Margolis found that the ALJ’s prior finding
that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 1992 was the
law of the case, and thus remand for the additional purpose sought by Defendant would
(See Rec. Ruling at 6.)
Additionally, Magistrate Judge Margolis
concluded that the case should be remanded for the limited purpose of complying with
the original court order in Nettleton I. (See id.)
Defendant objects to the Recommended Ruling, arguing that Magistrate Judge
Margolis should not have applied the law of the case doctrine in this case, and requests
Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b) and Local Rule 72.2(b), the
portions of the Magistrate Judge’s decision objected to by Defendant are reviewed de
novo, and any part or the entirety of the Recommended Ruling may be adopted, rejected,
that the Court permit remand for the additional purpose of soliciting testimony as to
Plaintiff’s substantial gainful activity after her date of last insured.2
Defendant concedes that it was legal error for the Appeals Council to disregard
the Nettleton I remand order.
See Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 886 (1989)
(“Deviation from the court’s remand order in the subsequent administrative proceedings
is itself legal error, subject to reversal on further judicial review.”) “[D]istrict courts have
the power to limit the scope of remand by specifying the actions to be taken by the ALJ.”
Thompson v. Astrue, 583 F. Supp. 2d 472, 475 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (citing Sullivan, 490 U.S. at
885). “ALJs have acknowledged throughout the years that the remand instructions they
receive from the federal district court are the law of the case.” Thompson, 583 F. Supp. 2d
at 475 (quoting Ischay v. Barnhardt, 383 F. Supp. 2d 1199, 1214–18 (C.D. Cal. 2005)).
“Similarly, the Commissioner is implicitly limited by any findings of the district court
regarding the application for disability benefits.” Thompson, 583 F. Supp. 2d at 475.
Thus, Judge Squatrito’s August 30, 2010 Order is the law of the case for purposes of this
action. See Calderon v. Astrue, 683 F. Supp. 2d 273, 276 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (finding that
while the Second Circuit had not addressed the question, the law of the case doctrine
applied to Social Security appeals in light of the numerous cases supporting that
“The law of the case doctrine, while not binding, counsels a court against
revisiting its prior rulings in subsequent stages of the same case absent ‘cogent’ and
‘compelling’ reasons such as ‘an intervening change of controlling law, the availability of
new evidence, or the need to correct a clear error or prevent manifest injustice.’” Ali v.
Defendant does not object to Magistrate Judge Margolis’s determination that the
case should be remanded for the purpose of soliciting additional testimony regarding the
onset date of Plaintiff’s disability.
Mukasey, 529 F.3d 478, 490 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Tenzer, 213 F.3d 34,
39 (2d Cir. 2000)). Similarly, the rule of mandate provides that “the power of a trial court
to act in any litigation after the issuance of a mandate on appeal is limited by an
obligation to do nothing contrary to either the letter or the spirit of the mandate, as
explained or elucidated by the opinion.” Goldwyn Pictures Corp. v. Howells Sales Co., 287
F. 100, 102 (2d Cir. 1923). “When acting under an appellate court’s mandate, an inferior
court is bound by the decree as the law of the case.” Calderon, 683 F. Supp. 2d at 276
(quoting Vizcaino v. United States District Court, 178 F.3d 713, 719 (9th Cir. 1999)).
Defendant objects to the Recommended Ruling on the grounds that the law of the
case doctrine is not binding and should not be applied to limit the remand order in this
case because barring the ALJ from considering whether Plaintiff was engaged in
substantial gainful activity could create manifest injustice in that Plaintiff might receive
benefits to which she is not entitled. Defendant raised this argument at every stage in the
litigation in Nettleton I, and while the district court did not explicitly address the issue of
substantial gainful employment, the law of the case doctrine “applies to all matters
decided by necessary implication as well as those addressed directly.” Carrillio v. Heckler,
599 F. Supp. 1164, 1169 (D.C.N.Y. 1984) (citing Fogel v. Chestnutt, 688 F.2d 100, 108 (2d
Cir. 1981)). Because the court in Nettleton I remanded the case with respect to an error
on step five of the analysis, it necessarily upheld the ALJ’s finding at step one that Plaintiff
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 1992. See Calderon, 683 F.
Supp. 2d at 276–77 (holding that prior remand on step five implicitly upheld the ALJ
step–four determination (quoting Carrillio, 599 F. Supp. at 1169.) Thus the August 30,
2010 Order is the law of the case for the purposes of the substantial gainful activity
determination at step one of the analysis.
The Eastern District of New York’s reasoning in Calderon is particularly
instructive on this issue. In Calderon, the district court had previously remanded the case
to the ALJ to correct an error on the step–five analysis. Id. at 275. However, on remand,
the ALJ revisited his step–four determination, and denied the plaintiff’s claim on that
step, without reaching the issues raised in the remand order. Id. at 275–76. The court
applied the law of the case doctrine and the rule of mandate to find that it was legal error
for the ALJ to reconsider his step–four determination when the district court’s prior
order provided for a limited remand to address a step–five error. Id. at 277. The facts of
Calderon are on all fours with the circumstances of this case, and the Court is persuaded
by the Eastern District of New York’s reasoning. Here, but for the Appeals Council’s
decision to ignore the mandate of the district court, Defendant would not have been able
to argue for a reconsideration of the ALJ’s step–one determination. Judge Squatrito
implicitly upheld the ALJ’s finding as to substantial gainful activity, and Defendant failed
to appeal that finding. Instead, Defendant now attempts to benefit from the disregard of
a prior court order to collaterally attack the ALJ’s decision. To permit the reconsideration
of this issue on remand would violate the spirit of the district court’s mandate in Nettleton
I. Thus, pursuant to the rule of mandate and the law of the case doctrine, Defendant is
bound by the terms of the August 30, 2010 Order, and Defendant’s objection to the
Recommended Ruling is therefore overruled.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion [Doc. # 21] to Remand is
GRANTED in part and the Recommended Ruling [Doc. # 24] is ADOPTED in full. The
decision of the Appeals Council is vacated and Judge Squatrito’s prior August 30, 2010
Order in Nettleton I stands. The Clerk is directed to close this case.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Janet Bond Arterton, U.S.D.J.
Dated at New Haven, Connecticut this 3rd day of April, 2013.
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