SCOTUS Opinion: Refusal To Produce Vocational Data Not Preclusive Of Effect On Worker’s Social Security Claim

In Biestek v. Berryhill, Michael Biestek applied for Social Security disability benefits, claiming he could no longer work due to physical and mental ailments. His case was heard by an administrative law judge (ALJ), who analyzed whether there was other work Biestek might be able to perform. The Social Security Administration offered the testimony of a vocational expert as to what jobs Biestek was able to perform in, and how many of those jobs were in the national economy. On cross-examination, the expert refused to provide her data that supported those opinions. The ALJ denied benefits based on that testimony, and Biestek appealed, arguing that the ALJ’s findings were not supported by “substantial evidence” because the expert refused to provide her data. The district court and the Sixth Circuit ruled against Biestek, creating a conflict with the Seventh Circuit. The Court, in an opinion by Justice Kagan, affirmed, holding that substantial evidence does not require that an expert disclose her underlying data. Noting that Biestek agreed that an expert’s opinion could constitute substantial evidence if the underlying data is never requested, the majority reasoned that a refusal of such a request was not enough, in itself, to invalidate that data. The Court concluded instead that the weight of such a refusal must be determined on a case-by-case basis by the ALJ. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented, arguing that refusal to provide the data rendered the expert’s opinions to be mere speculation, and not “substantial evidence” that might be relied upon. Justice Sotomayor also dissented, noting her support of Gorsuch’s reasoning, but also noting that there may be legitimate reasons for an expert to, in some cases, not provide data.

A link to the opinion is here.