Facts of the Case
Three individuals who had been receiving disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act were terminated pursuant to a continuing disability review (CDR) program established by Congress under an amendment to Title II and initiated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) in March 1981. Pursuant to the CDR program, most disability determinations were to be reviewed at least once every 3 years. Under the CDR program as originally instituted, a disability benefit claimant bore the burden, in an initial review conducted by a state agency, of demonstrating continued disability. If the claimant was found to be ineligible by the state agency, benefits were usually terminated at that point and were unavailable during review of the initial determination by a federal administrative law judge. In 1982, after the individuals had been restored to disabled status and had been awarded retroactive benefits, the individuals filed an action in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona against the Secretary of HHS, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, and the director of the Arizona state agency participating in the administration of Title II in Arizona under the supervision of the Secretary of HHS, seeking an award of money damages from the officials in their official and individual capacities for the emotional distress and loss of necessities caused by the officials’ denial of disability benefits without due process under the CDR program, in violation of the Federal Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. The District Court dismissed the action, ruling that the conduct of the officials was protected by a qualified immunity, and did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that it could not be determined as a matter of law that the individuals could prove no state of facts resulting in violations of their due process rights and consequent damages. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review.
When a government employee violates a citizen’s legal rights, should that citizen be allowed to pursue monetary damages as compensation, even when the violated statute does not contain monetary damages as a possible remedy in its remedial process?
No. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the opinion for the 6-3 majority. The Court held that the respondents were not entitled to monetary damages because they were not mentioned in the extensive remedial options provided in the Social Security Disability Act (Act). The Court rejected the respondents’ argument that this case was analogous to Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents , a case in which the Court ruled that, when a government actor violates a citizen’s legal right, federal courts may use any available remedy to make the wronged party whole. In Bivens there were no special circumstances preventing monetary damages, and Congress provided no legal redress in the statute. In this case, the Act provides an extensive remedial program in which Congress carefully considered the possibilities for remedy and specifically left out monetary damages.Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a concurring opinion in which he disagreed with the majority opinion’s decision to ignore the Solicitor General’s argument that Congress had enacted a statute expressly requiring dismissal of this complaint.Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote a dissenting opinion in which he argued that Congressional silence on the monetary damages issue does not mean that the explicitly stated remedial process was intended to be the only source of remedy. He argued that legislators of “normal sensibilities” would have wanted some form of remedy for citizens wronged to the extent that respondents were. Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun joined in the dissent.
- Citation: 487 US 412 (1988)
- Argued: Mar 1, 1988
- Decided Jun 24, 1988Granted: Oct 5, 1987