Bowen, Secretary of Health and Human Services v. City of New York
Decided June 2, 1986; 476 US 467


A. Issues Discussed: Governmental Authority (regulation)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did the District Court correctly include claimants who had received a final decision on their individual claims for benefits more than 60 days prior to the filing of this action? Did the court correctly include other claimants who had not exhausted their administrative remedies?


A. Background:

The Social Security Act provides benefits to disabled persons under two programs administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA): the Social Security Disability Insurance Program (SSD) and the Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI). Regulations for both programs establish a five-step "sequential evaluation" process for determining eligibility for benefits. The initial determination of whether an individual is disabled is made by a state agency under the authority and control of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary). This determination is subject to review by the SSA. The disappointed claimant is then afforded a three-stage administrative review process. Proceeding through these three stages exhausts the claimant's administrative remedies. Thereafter, he may seek judicial review in Federal District Court, but must do so within 60 days of the Secretary's final decision.

Respondents brought a class action against the Secretary and the Commissioner of the SSA, seeking relief on behalf of all individuals residing in New York who had, within a specified time period, been denied disability benefits or whose benefits were terminated pursuant to an allegedly illegal internal policy of the Secretary. The District Court certified the class as including claimants who had not complied with the 60-day requirement for seeking judicial review and other claimants who had not exhausted their administrative remedies and obtained a final decision of the Secretary. Holding that the policy in question was illegal, the District Court ordered the Secretary to reopen the decisions denying or terminating benefits and to redetermine eligibility. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Secretaty appealed and the US Supreme Court granted certiorari.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Frederick A. O. Schwarz, Jr., argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Frederick P. Schaffer, Michael D. Young, Robert Abrams, Attorney General of New York, Robert Hermann, Solicitor General, Paul M. Glickman and Andrea Green, Assistant Attorneys General, Leonard S. Rubenstein, Ambrose Doskow, and Richard L. Claman. Edwin S. Kneedler argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Fried, Assistant Attorney General Willard, Deputy Solicitor General Geller, William Kanter, and Howard S. Scher.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for:

State of Alabama et al. by Neil F. Hartigan, Attorney General of Illinois, Roma J. Stewart, Solicitor General, Charles A. Graddick, Attorney General of Alabama, Steve Clark, Attorney General of Arkansas, Jim Smith, Attorney General of Florida, Corinne K. A. Watanabe, Attorney General [476 U.S. 467, 469] of Hawaii, Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General of Iowa, David L. Armstrong, Attorney General of Kentucky, William J. Guste, Jr., Attorney General of Louisiana, James E. Tierney, Attorney General of Maine, Stephen H. Sachs, Attorney General of Maryland, Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General of Minnesota, Vicki Sleeper, Special Assistant Attorney General, Edward Lloyd Pittman, Attorney General of Mississippi, William L. Webster, Attorney General of Missouri, Robert M. Spire, Attorney General of Nebraska, Brian McKay, Attorney General of Nevada, W. Cary Edwards, Attorney General of New Jersey, Paul Bardacke, Attorney General of New Mexico, Nicholas Spaeth, Attorney General of North Dakota, Michael C. Turpen, Attorney General of Oklahoma, Mark V. Meierhenry, Attorney General of South Dakota, Jim Mattox, Attorney General of Texas, Charles G. Brown, Attorney General of West Virginia, Bronson C. La Follette, Attorney General of Wisconsin, and A. G. McClintock, Attorney General of Wyoming; for the City of Chicago by James D. Montgomery;

American Bar Association by William W. Falsgraf and John H. Pickering;

American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Burt Neuborne and Charles S. Sims;

American Psychiatric Association by Joel I. Klein;

Association of the Bar of the City of New York by Robert B. McKay, Sheldon H. Elsen, John F. K. Cassidy, Peter L. Zimroth, Alexander R. Sussman, Robinson B. Lacy, and John C. Sullivan;

National Institute of Municipal Law Officers by Roy D. Bates, William I. Thornton, Jr., John W. Witt, Roger F. Cutler, and George Agnost.
No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Petitioner.


 "The District Court properly included in the class claimants who had received a final decision from the Secretary but did not seek judicial review within the statutory 60-day period. The 60-day requirement is not jurisdictional but rather constitutes a statute of limitations. Equitable tolling of that requirement is consistent with Congress' intent in enacting 405(g), and on the facts of this case the equities are in favor of tolling. Tolling serves the Act's purpose where the internal policy prevented the claimants from knowing of a violation of their rights...

The District Court also properly included in the class claimants who failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. The court did not err in waiving exhaustion not only as to those claimants whose time to pursue further administrative appeals had lapsed but also as to those who still had time to pursue administrative remedies at the time the suit was filed. For claimants whose time to pursue further remedies had lapsed, exhaustion is excused for the same reasons requiring tolling of the 60-day statute of limitations. Since the claimants could not attack a policy of which they were unaware, it would be unfair to penalize them for not exhausting under such circumstances. It was also proper to waive the exhaustion requirement with respect to those claimants who still had time to file suit. The claims in the suit are collateral to the claims for benefits that class members had presented administratively. The class members neither sought nor were awarded benefits in the District Court, but rather challenged the Secretary's failure to follow the regulations. Moreover, the claimants would be irreparably injured if the exhaustion requirement were now enforced against them. The relief afforded by the District Court was fully consistent with the policies underlying exhaustion...

Held: The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed."

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • Powell, L. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.