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Heckler Bows to Courts on Policy Issues : Abolishes Practice of ‘Non-Acquiescence’ in Some Judicial Rulings

Associated Press

Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler, in a policy switch mandated by Congress, announced today that the Social Security Administration is backing off its controversial policy of refusing to honor some federal appeals court rulings.

Heckler said the agency in general will apply appeals court rulings to all similar cases of people residing within that circuit court’s jurisdiction.

For nearly 20 years, the Social Security Administration has taken the position that it had a right to “non-acquiescence” in certain decisions it disagreed with. It granted benefits to the individual who won the appellate ruling, but not to others in the same circumstances. Those people had to sue in federal court to win benefits.

Will Test Certain Cases

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Heckler said her agency will reserve the right to withhold benefits and seek a new court review of issues in certain cases where it was convinced the appeals court was in error.

Her undersecretary, Charles D. Baker, in an affidavit submitted today to a federal court in New York, said that would be only in “those few cases that the agency, after consultation with the Department of Justice, has determined are appropriate ‘test’ cases for relitigation.”

“In all other cases where granting of benefits would be compelled by circuit precedent, benefits can now be awarded in the administrative process,” Baker said, “thus obviating the need for individual requests for judicial review that unnecessarily burden the courts, the claimants and the agency.”

Orders From Congress

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The new policy applies to both Social Security and Supplemental Security Income cases.

Congress instructed Heckler last year to seek a resolution of the controversy over non-acquiescence. The issue attracted new attention in recent years when several appeals courts ordered Social Security to stop cutting people off the disability rolls.

The agency has refused to comply with 10 circuit rulings since 1966, and is still not complying with five of those rulings, according to spokesman James Brown. Those five do not involve disability, he said.

The agency previously had contended that it needed to maintain national policies for the program in the face of what were sometimes contradictory rulings from the 12 federal appeals courts.

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