Law of the Case Doctrine Applies in Social Security Disability Cases

In a recent case decided by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the judge held that the “law of the case” doctrine applies in Social Security Disability cases. The law of the case doctrine provides that , in a trial following a reversal and remand, if the evidence is substantially the same as the facts upon which the reviewing court based its decision, matters decided on appeal become the law of the case to be followed in all subsequent proceedings in the trial court and, on second appeal, in the appellate court, unless there is plain error of law in the original decision. Kaku v. Nagano v. Brownell, 212 F. 2d 262, 263 (7th Cir. 1954). See also, Vidimos v. Wysong, 179 F.3d 1063, 1064 (7th Cir. 1999).

As a consequence, the law of the case doctrine compels an ALJ on remand of a case from the district court, and the district court, on a second appeal, to accept the findings of the judge of the district court who first decided the case as established and not subject to further review or renewed appeal.

In the particular case in which the applicability of the doctrine was announced, a fibromyalgia victim had appealed an adverse decision of an ALJ to the district court. The district judge (in district court case No. 1), while remanding the case for further proceedings, made findings favorable to the claimant. At the second administrative hearing, the evidence of record was either cumulative or showed the claimant was even more in pain. Even so, the ALJ at the second administrative hearing made findings that were opposite to that which the district judge found in district court case No. 1. The second administrative hearing resulted in an denial of disability benefits. On appeal again to the district court (district court case No. 2) the district court held that the law of the case doctrine applied to the findings in district case No. 1. Based on this application, the ALJ at the second hearing erred when he made findings regarding the medical evidence that were directly opposite the findings of district court No. 1. District Court case No. 2 resulted in a reversal and award of disability benefits for the claimant based on her fibromylagia.

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