Biestek v. Berryhill asked whether agency experts must provide data supporting their testimony during benefits hearings. On April 1st, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, “not categorically.” The court held that reviewing courts could uphold agency decisions even when experts withhold requested data.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a 6-3 majority, argued that a blanket rule against experts refusing to reveal data used to support their conclusions would be too broad. She held that reviewing courts should adopt a case-by-case approach. Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, argued that agency experts should provide support for their allegations when asked.
When the Social Security Administration (SSA) decides whether to award disability benefits to applicants, it follows an informal adjudication process laid out in the Social Security Act of 1935. SSA administrative law judges (ALJs) conduct hearings to determine whether the agency should accept or reject disability claims. If someone challenges an SSA benefits decision in court, judges will uphold the agency’s factual determinations if a reasonable person would accept that the supporting evidence was adequate.
Courts reviewing factual determinations made by the SSA have to make sure the agency based its decisions on substantial evidence. Court precedent defines substantial evidence as that which a reasonable mind would accept as supporting a conclusion.
In this case, Michael Biestek went before an SSA ALJ for a hearing to see if there was any work he could perform with his disabilities. A vocational expert working for the SSA testified that there were hundreds of thousands of jobs available for someone like Biestek. The ALJ did not require the expert to share the surveys she used to make her assessment when Biestek’s lawyer asked to see them. Based on the expert testimony, the ALJ rejected part of Biestek’s disability application. Biestek challenged the partial denial of benefits, saying that the expert’s refusal to share her data meant that her testimony fell short of the substantial evidence standard.
Justice Kagan held that expert testimony alone is usually enough to qualify as substantial evidence. She did not support rejecting expert testimony in all cases where the agency expert refuses to divulge the underlying data. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that the SSA had the burden of proof to show that Biestek had work opportunities. Justice Gorsuch wrote a separate dissenting opinion, arguing that “The principle that the government must support its allegations with substantial evidence, not conclusions and secret evidence, guards against arbitrary executive decisionmaking [….] Without it, people like Mr. Biestek are left to the mercy of a bureaucrat’s caprice.”