Schweiker v. Chilicky

PETITIONER:Richard Schweiker
RESPONDENT:James Chilicky
LOCATION:Arizona Department of Health Services

DOCKET NO.: 86-1781
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 487 US 412 (1988)
ARGUED: Mar 01, 1988
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1988
GRANTED: Oct 05, 1987

Charles Fried – on behalf of the Petitioners
Laurence H. Tribe – on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

In 1980 Congress enacted a continuing disability review (CDR) process to ensure that the only people who were receiving disability benefits under the Social Security Disability Act (Act) were those who had medical conditions sufficient to warrant such benefits. This program led to a massive increase in the number of people who were denied continuance of their benefits. The respondents were three of those people who, in addition to pursuing remedies through the uniform appeal process, sued three high-ranking administrators of the CDR process in district court. The respondents argued that the government violated their Fifth Amendment rights to due process by adopting illegal polices that led to the wrongful termination of their benefits. Despite the Act’s explicit provision of a means for remedy, the respondents sought monetary damages for their emotional distress and loss of food. The district court dismissed the case and held that the government officials were protected from paying monetary damages by the doctrine of qualified immunity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and held that there might be enough facts to prove a violation of due process warranting monetary damages.


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?

Media for Schweiker v. Chilicky

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 01, 1988 in Schweiker v. Chilicky

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 1988 in Schweiker v. Chilicky

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinions of the Court in two cases, No. 86-1781, Schweiker against Chilicky and No. 86-7113, Kadrmas against Dickinson Public Schools will be announced by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O’Connor:

In the Schweiker case, it comes to us on writ of certiorari from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The question presented is whether the improper denial of Social Security disability benefits allegedly resulting from due process violations by government officials who administered the disability program may give rise to a cause of action for money damages against those officials.

Under the Social Security program, disabled people are entitled to monthly benefits if they’re unable to work at paying jobs.

In 1980, Congress enacted a statute requiring periodic review of the medical status of these people with an eye toward determining whether they remained eligible under the program.

A state agency usually made the initial determination about continued eligibility and recipients were then free to seek administrative review of adverse decisions.

Benefits, however, were cut off during the administrative review process.

In 1983, Congress learned that large numbers of people were improperly being terminated by state agencies only to have their benefits restored after further administrative review.

Congress enacted emergency reform legislation which was extended the following year and provided among other things that recipients could continue to receive benefits during the review process.

The respondents in this case are individuals whose benefits were improperly terminated before the reform legislation.

Although they received full retroactive restoration of their benefits, they were not compensated for emotional distress and other damages they suffered as a result of the long delays that preceded the restoration of benefits.

They sued the petitioners, one state and two federal officials responsible for administering the program, seeking to recover money damages for these injuries.

The respondents alleged that the wrongful termination of benefits had resulted from due process violations in the structure and administration of the disability review process.

The Federal District Court dismissed the lawsuit but the Court of Appeals held that the remedy sought by respondents would be available if they could prove their case.

The Court relied on our 1971 decision in Bivens against the Six Unknown Agents which created a similar remedy for constitutional violations by federal law enforcement officers.

We find that this case is indistinguishable from our more recent decision in Bush versus Lucas.

In that case, we held that an action in money damages against federal officials would not be recognized were Congress has already constructed an elaborate remedial scheme or system that gives meaningful protections to individual rights even though it does not provide complete relief.

Although we recognized that some injuries will go uncompensated under this system, we hold that the courts are not at liberty to create new remedies that would rearrange Congress’ allocation of scarce resources in a large welfare benefits program like the one at issue here.

Because the relief sought by the respondents is unavailable as a matter of law, the case must be dismissed and the judgment of the Court of Appeals to the contrary is reversed.

Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

Justice Brennan has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Marshall and Blackmun have joined.