By Elissa Hachmeister

In Tanner v. Commissioner of Social Security, an unpublished opinion issued on February 12, 2015, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court for the District of South Carolina’s judgment upholding the Social Security Administration’s decision to deny Madeline Brown Tanner’s claim for disability insurance benefits. Although the district court erroneously failed to consider some of Tanner’s arguments after incorrectly applying the “mandate rule,” the Fourth Circuit nonetheless affirmed because its independent assessment of all Tanner’s challenges showed that the agency’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. Thus, even if the district court had considered all her arguments, reversal still would not have been warranted.

Tanner’s Twice Denied Claim and District Court Review

Tanner applied for disability insurance benefits, but her claim was denied after a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Tanner sought review of the decision, filing suit in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina challenging the ALJ’s determinations regarding three main issues: (1) opinion evidence; (2) Tanner’s credibility; and (3) the effects of her impairments in combination. A magistrate judge recommended remand for additional consideration of opinion evidence, but rejected Tanner’s other arguments. Accepting the recommendation, the district court vacated the agency’s decision denying Tanner disability benefits.

On remand, Tanner had a second hearing before a different ALJ, but her claim was again denied. She filed suit to appeal the decision, raising substantially the same challenges as before. The magistrate judge recommended the district court uphold the second decision. In reviewing the second agency decision, the magistrate judge did not consider Tanner’s challenges to the ALJ’s determinations on the issues of credibility and the effects of her impairments in combination. The judge reasoned that these arguments had already been rejected; those earlier determinations were “the law of the case” and thus the “mandate rule” prohibited further review. The district court accepted the magistrate judge’s recommendation, adopting the judge’s assessment in its decision upholding the second denial of benefits.

Improper Application of the “Mandate Rule”

The district court, through the magistrate judge, was confused in its application of the “mandate rule,” which prohibits lower courts from considering questions that have been resolved by a higher court. The Fourth Circuit presumed, without deciding, that the mandate rule applies to agencies; thus the Social Security Administration (SSA) must respect the mandate or decision of the district court or an appellate court on remand. Nonetheless, the mandate rule did not require the ALJ to reconsider only certain opinion evidence on remand under the circumstances in this case. New evidence was presented at the second hearing, obliging the ALJ to reassess Tanner’s disability claim de novo per agency regulations. ALJ findings based on new evidence do not violate any earlier mandate set by a district court or an appellate court.

Reviewing an SSA Disability Determination 

An SSA disability determination will be upheld if the ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. Bird v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). The same standard of review applies whether the reviewing court is a district court or an appellate court. Because the district court did not fully consider Tanner’s challenges to the second agency decision, the Fourth Circuit undertook its own independent assessment of all of Tanner’s arguments. The Fourth Circuit found that the ALJ determinations challenged by Tanner were supported by substantial evidence. The district court’s mistaken invocation of the mandate rule was therefore harmless error since reversal would not have been appropriate even if all of Tanner’s arguments had been considered.

Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Affirmed