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Case Name Hart v. Colvin PB-CA-0046
Docket / Court 4:15-cv-00623-JST ( N.D. Cal. )
Additional Docket(s) 3:15-cv-00623-JST  [ 15-623 ]  Northern District of CA (U.S.)
State/Territory California
Case Type(s) Public Benefits / Government Services
Special Collection Post-WalMart decisions on class certification
Attorney Organization Legal Services/Legal Aid
Case Summary
On February 9, 2015, three individuals whose disability benefits had allegedly been denied or terminated based on examinations performed by a now-disqualified doctor filed this class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The plaintiffs sued the Acting ... read more >
On February 9, 2015, three individuals whose disability benefits had allegedly been denied or terminated based on examinations performed by a now-disqualified doctor filed this class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The plaintiffs sued the Acting Commissioner of Social Security for alleged violations of the Social Security Act and the Fifth Amendment. The plaintiffs alleged that the Commissioner wrongfully relied on examinations performed by a physician who, at the time of this complaint, had been disqualified, in denying or terminating their disability benefits.

Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendant’s policy and practice of relying on this disqualified doctor’s defective examination reports in denying or terminating disability benefits was in violation of a requirement that such determinations be based on evidence from acceptable medical sources. Moreover, the plaintiffs alleged that they, and the class members, were never notified that the doctor had been disqualified, nor were they provided copies of his reports at the time of their denial or termination. Represented by the National Senior Citizens Law Center, Legal Aid of San Mateo County, and private counsel, the plaintiffs asked the court for declaratory and injunctive relief, class certification, and costs and attorneys’ fees.

According to the Social Security Act and its implementing regulations, the Social Security Administration “need[s] evidence from acceptable medical sources to establish whether [an individual has] a medically determinable impairment.” The Social Security Administration also mandated that in order to obtain adequate medical evidence of an individual’s disabilities, it was necessary to procure a consultative examination from a qualified medical source. The physician now in question had performed many such examinations in San Francisco and surrounding cities, and had issued reports that he knew were “incorrect or incomplete, including statements that he performed tests he did not in fact perform, and conclusions that were inconsistent with medical evidence already in the record, with no explanation or even acknowledgement of the inconsistency.” After numerous complaints over a period of years, this doctor was disqualified from continuing to provide consultative examinations as of December 30, 2013. However, his prior examination reports continued to be used as competent evidence by the Social Security Administration, and were used in denying and terminating SSI and SSDI benefits.

After the plaintiffs filed this complaint, the case was initially assigned to Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu. On February 10, 2015, the court ordered alternative dispute resolution. On March 30, 2015, the case was reassigned to Judge Jon S. Tigar for all further proceedings.

On April 20, 2015, the defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, claiming that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust all administrative remedies available to them, and the court therefore did not have subject matter jurisdiction.

On June 25, 2015, the court held a hearing on the defendant’ motion to dismiss, which was denied on July 17, 2015. The court held that while the plaintiffs had not exhausted all administrative remedies, a waiver should be granted because “requiring plaintiffs to exhaust administrative remedies would not serve the policies underlying exhaustion.”

On August 6, 2015, the plaintiffs moved for class certification.

The case management conference set for August 19 was continued to November 19, 2015 because the court set a class-certification briefing schedule and referred the case to a magistrate judge for settlement, which was set for November 17, 2015. The court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification on October 14, 2015. 310 F.R.D. 427.

Following a series of settlement conferences before Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James, the parties came to an agreement on September 19, 2016, and submitted their proposed class action settlement agreement to the court. The agreement provided relief to class members through procedural mechanisms that varied depending on the status of their claims and the amount of time since their examination by the disqualified doctor:

Class members with open claims (individuals who had received an unfavorable but not-yet-final determination of their claim) were to be notified that their consultative examination reports were flawed, and that they had the option to have the report excluded from consideration in a forthcoming adjudication. However, the adjudicator had the discretion in each case to consider whether ordering an additional consultative examination would be appropriate.

Class members with closed claims (individuals who had received a final unfavorable determination fo their claim) would be eligible for relief through a readjudication process which would not consider the reports created by the disqualified doctor. The individual would also have the opportunity to submit supplemental evidence relating to the previously-adjudicated period. If found to have been disabled for part or all of the period, they would be eligible to receive back payments for missed benefits.

This relief would not be granted to individuals in “current pay status” (individuals who were receiving benefits), nor would it be available for individuals whose claims were denied by an adjudication which had afforded no weight to the disqualified doctor’s report.

The defendant agreed to begin a study of the processes through which it monitors California’s Disability Determination Services office (and its engagement, review, and retention of consultative examiners), in order to identify mechanisms to improve the monitoring process. The defendant also agree to “issue a document setting out processes for notifying adjudicators when an individual [consultative examination] provider previously engaged by the California [Disability Determination Services] has been disqualified for conduct determined to undermine the credibility of that provider’s reports.” The defendant agreed to pay attorneys’ fees in the amount of $490,000, and the plaintiffs agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice.

After preliminarily approving the settlement on November 9, 2016, the court held a final hearing on the settlement on March 16, 2017. On March 17, the parties submitted a joint stipulation of dismissal with prejudice, subject to the terms of the settlement agreement.

The court granted final approval of the class action settlement on April 17, 2017. The parties requested, and the court ordered, that the parties provide public notice. Since class members would have to take some affirmative steps to reopen their claims, the court ordered the defendant to publish a notice in newspapers, and ordered the plaintiffs’ counsel to provide notice to organizations that were likely to interact with class members. The court maintained jurisdiction over the case to ensure implementation and enforcement of the settlement.

On April 25, 2017, the court granted an order amending the settlement. Specifically, the amended settlement:
  1. Replaced the term “Administrative Law Judges” with “Social Security Administration”;
  2. Extended the deadline for mailing request forms;
  3. Clarified language concerning enforcement mechanisms; and
  4. Defined the class as “all persons whose SSI or SSDI benefits were either denied or terminated and for whom a consultative examination was prepared by Dr. Frank Chen, and all persons who received a partially favorable decision or determination on their claim for SSI or SSDI benefits and for whom a consultative examination was prepared by Dr. Chen.”
The court reserved exclusive and continuing jurisdiction over the settlement for the purposes of supervising its implementation, enforcement, and construction; the duration of jurisdiction was unspecified.

In April 2020, the plaintiffs filed a motion for enforcement of the settlement agreement, alleging that the Social Security Administration was not complying with the agreement. As required by the agreement, the parties scheduled a series of settlement conferences; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those conferences were postponed by joint stipulation of the parties. As of August 2020, the conferences are pending.

Saeeda Joseph-Charles - 12/05/2016
Gabriela Hybel - 06/01/2017
Bogyung Lim - 08/09/2020

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Benefit Source
Constitutional Clause
Due Process
Content of Injunction
Implement complaint/dispute resolution process
Preliminary relief granted
Required disclosure
disability, unspecified
Medical Exam / Inquiry
Disability (inc. reasonable accommodations)
Classification / placement
Government Services (specify)
Pattern or Practice
Public benefits (includes, e.g., in-state tuition, govt. jobs)
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Type of Facility
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Defendant(s) Social Security Administration
Plaintiff Description Disabled individuals who claim that their social security benefits were denied or terminated based on flawed medical examinations performed by a now-disqualified physician.
Indexed Lawyer Organizations Legal Services/Legal Aid
Class action status sought Yes
Class action status granted Yes
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement
Source of Relief Settlement
Form of Settlement Court Approved Settlement or Consent Decree
Voluntary Dismissal
Filed 02/09/2015
Case Ongoing Yes
Additional Resources
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  Hart v. Berryhill - Litigation
Justice in Aging
Date: 04/25/2017
By: Justice in Aging
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

3:15-cv-00623-JST (N.D. Cal.)
PB-CA-0046-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 06/25/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
Class Action Complaint [ECF# 1]
PB-CA-0046-0001.pdf | Detail
Date: 02/09/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order Denying Motion to Dismiss [ECF# 36] (2015 WL 4396259 / 2015 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 93391) (N.D. Cal.)
PB-CA-0046-0002.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 07/17/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Plaintiffs' Notice of Motion and Motion for Class Certification; Memorandum of Points and Authorities [ECF# 40]
PB-CA-0046-0003.pdf | Detail
Date: 08/06/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order Granting Class Certification [ECF# 50] (310 F.R.D. 427) (N.D. Cal.)
PB-CA-0046-0004.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 10/14/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Amended Settlement Agreement [ECF# 79]
PB-CA-0046-0006.pdf | Detail
Date: 11/08/2016
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order Granting Motion for Preliminary Approval of Class Action Settlement [ECF# 81] (2016 WL 6611002) (N.D. Cal.)
PB-CA-0046-0005.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 11/09/2016
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order Granting Final Approval of Class Action Settlement [ECF# 88] (N.D. Cal.)
PB-CA-0046-0007.pdf | Detail
Date: 04/17/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Stipulated Request to Amend Order Granting Final Approval of Class Action Settlement and Order [ECF# 90] (N.D. Cal.)
PB-CA-0046-0008.pdf | Detail
Date: 04/25/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
show all people docs
Judges Beeler, Laurel (N.D. Cal.) [Magistrate] show/hide docs
Tigar, Jon Steven (State Trial Court, N.D. Cal.) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0002 | PB-CA-0046-0004 | PB-CA-0046-0005 | PB-CA-0046-0007 | PB-CA-0046-0008 | PB-CA-0046-9000
Plaintiff's Lawyers Balassone, Elizabeth Gilmore (California) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0003 | PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-0008 | PB-CA-0046-9000
Lang, Kathryn Rose (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-9000
McIntyre, Gerald Andrew (California) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-9000
McManus, Spencer (California) show/hide docs
Nakamura, Hope Gisele (California) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-9000
Petraglia, Robert Travis (California) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0003 | PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-0008 | PB-CA-0046-9000
Phan, Trinh (California) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-9000
Rich, Anna Margaret (California) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-9000
Stern, William Lewis (California) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0001 | PB-CA-0046-0003 | PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-0008 | PB-CA-0046-9000
Vetesi, Claudia Maria (California) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0003 | PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-0008 | PB-CA-0046-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Mizer, Benjamin C. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
Subar, Judry S (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-0008
Zee, M. Andrew (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
PB-CA-0046-0006 | PB-CA-0046-0008 | PB-CA-0046-9000

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