Michael J. Biestek v. Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

Michael J. Biestek v. Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security  (2019) 
by the Supreme Court of the United States

Note: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.



No. 17–1184. Argued December 4, 2018—Decided April 1, 2019

Petitioner Michael Biestek, a former construction worker, applied for social security disability benefits, claiming he could no longer work due to physical and mental disabilities. The Social Security Administration (SSA) assigned an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to conduct a hearing, at which the ALJ had to determine whether Biestek could successfully transition to less physically demanding work. For guidance on that issue, the ALJ heard testimony from a vocational expert regarding the types of jobs Biestek could still perform and the number of such jobs that existed in the national economy. See 20 CFR §§404.1560(c)(1), 416.960(c)(1). On cross-examination, Biestek’s attorney asked the expert “where [she was] getting [her numbers] from,” and the expert explained they were from her own individual labor market surveys. Biestek’s attorney then requested that the expert turn over the surveys. The expert declined. The ALJ ultimately denied Biestek benefits, basing his conclusion on the expert’s testimony about the number of jobs available to him. Biestek sought review in federal court, where an ALJ’s factual findings are “conclusive” if supported by “substantial evidence,” 42 U. S. C. §405(g). The District Court rejected Biestek’s argument that the expert’s testimony could not possibly constitute substantial evidence because she had declined to produce her supporting data. The Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Held: A vocational expert’s refusal to provide private market-survey data upon the applicant’s request does not categorically preclude the testimony from counting as “substantial evidence.”

Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla,” and means only “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U. S. 197, 229. Biestek proposes a categorical rule that the testimony of a vocational expert who refuses a request for supporting data about job availability can never clear that bar. To assess that proposal, the Court begins with the parties’ common ground: Assuming no demand, a vocational expert’s testimony may count as substantial evidence even when unaccompanied by supporting data.

If that is true, is it not obvious why one additional fact—a refusal to a request for that data—should make an expert’s testimony categorically inadequate. In some cases, the refusal to disclose data, considered along with other shortcomings, will undercut an expert’s credibility and prevent a court from finding that “a reasonable mind” could accept the expert’s testimony. But in other cases, the refusal will have no such consequence. Similarly, the refusal will sometimes interfere with effective cross-examination, which a reviewing court may consider in deciding how much to credit an expert’s opinion. But other times, even without supporting data, an applicant will be able to probe the strength of the expert’s testimony on cross-examination. Ultimately, Biestek’s error lies in his pressing for a categorical rule, applying to every case in which a vocational expert refuses a request for underlying data. The inquiry, as is usually true in determining the substantiality of evidence, is case-by-case. It takes into account all features of the vocational expert’s testimony, as well as the rest of the administrative record, and defers to the presiding ALJ, who has seen the hearing up close. Pp. 5–11.

880 F. 3d 778, affirmed.

Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Gorsuch, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).

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