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WEINBERGER v. SALFI ET AL.

June 26, 1975

WEINBERGER, SECRETARY OF HEALTH, EDUCATION, AND WELFARE, ET AL
v.
SALFI ET AL.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA

Burger, Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist

Author: Rehnquist

[ 422 U.S. Page 752]

 MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellants, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, its Secretary, the Social Security Administration and various of its officials, appeal from a decision of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California invalidating duration-of-relationship

[ 422 U.S. Page 753]

     Social Security eligibility requirements for surviving wives and stepchildren of deceased wage earners. 373 F. Supp. 961 (1974).

That court concluded that it had jurisdiction of the action by virtue of 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and eventually certified the case as a class action. On the merits, it concluded that the nine-month requirements of §§ 216 (c)(5) and (e)(2) of the Social Security Act, 49 Stat. 620, as added, 64 Stat. 510, and as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416 (c)(5) and (e)(2) (1970 ed. and Supp. III), constituted "irrebuttable presumptions" which were constitutionally invalid under the authority of Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, 414 U.S. 632 (1974); Vlandis v. Kline, 412 U.S. 441 (1973); and Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972). We hold that the District Court did not have jurisdiction of this action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and that while it had jurisdiction of the claims of the named appellees under the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g), it had no jurisdiction over the claims asserted on behalf of unnamed class members. We further decide that the District Court was wrong on the merits of the constitutional question tendered by the named appellees.

I

Appellee Salfi married the deceased wage earner, Londo L. Salfi, on May 27, 1972. Despite his alleged apparent good health at the time of the marriage, he suffered a heart attack less than a month later, and died on November 21, 1972, less than six months after the marriage. Appellee Salfi filed applications for mother's insurance benefits for herself and child's insurance benefits for her daughter by a previous marriage, appellee Doreen Kalnins.*fn1 These applications were denied by the Social

[ 422 U.S. Page 754]

     Security Administration, both initially and on reconsideration at the regional level, solely on the basis of the duration-of-relationship requirements of §§ 416 (c)(5) and (e)(2), which define "widow" and "child." The definitions exclude surviving wives and stepchildren who had their respective relationships to a deceased wage earner for less than nine months prior to his death.*fn2

[ 422 U.S. Page 755]

     The named appellees then filed this action, principally relying on 28 U.S.C. § 1331 for jurisdiction. They sought to represent the class of "all widows and stepchildren of deceased wage earners who are denied widow's [sic] or children's insurance benefits because the wage earner died within nine months of his marriage to the applicant or (in case of a stepchild) the applicant's mother." App. 8. They alleged at least partial exhaustion of remedies with regard to their personal claims, but made no similar allegations with regard to other class members. They sought declaratory relief against the challenged statute, and injunctive relief restraining appellants from denying mother's and child's benefits on the basis of the statute. In addition to attorneys' fees and costs, they also sought "damages or sums due and owing equivalent to the amount of benefits to which plaintiffs became entitled as of the date of said entitlement." Id., at 13.

A three-judge District Court heard the case on cross-motions for summary judgment, and granted substantially all of the relief prayed for by appellees. The District Court rendered a declaratory judgment holding the challenged statute to be unconstitutional, certified a class consisting of "all otherwise eligible surviving spouses and stepchildren... heretofore disqualified from receipt of... benefits by operation" of the duration-of-relationship requirements, enjoined appellants from denying benefits on the basis of those requirements, and ordered them to provide such benefits "from the time of

[ 422 U.S. Page 756]

     original entitlement." 373 F. Supp., at 966. We noted probable jurisdiction of the appeal from that judgment. 419 U.S. 992 (1974).

In addition to their basic contention that the duration-of-relationship requirements pass constitutional muster, appellants present several contentions bearing on the scope of the monetary relief awarded by the District Court. They contend that the award is barred by sovereign immunity insofar as it consists of retroactive benefits, that regardless of sovereign immunity invalidation of the duration-of-relationship requirements should be given prospective effect only, and that the District Court did not properly handle certain class-action issues. Because we conclude that the duration-of-relationship requirements are constitutional, we have no occasion to reach the retroactivity and class-action issues. We are confronted, however, by a serious question as to whether the District Court had jurisdiction over this suit.

II

The third sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405 (h) provides in part: S

"No action against the United States, the Secretary, or any officer or employee thereof shall be brought under [§ 1331 et seq.] of Title 28 to recover on any claim arising under [Title II of the Social Security Act]."*fn3

On its face, this provision bars district court federal-question jurisdiction over suits, such as this one, which

[ 422 U.S. Page 757]

     seek to recover Social Security benefits. Yet it was § 1331 jurisdiction which appellees successfully invoked in the District Court. That court considered this provision, but concluded that it was inapplicable because it amounted to no more than a codification of the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies. The District Court's reading of § 405 (h) was, we think, entirely too narrow.

That the third sentence of § 405 (h) is more than a codified requirement of administrative exhaustion is plain from its own language, which is sweeping and direct and which states that no action shall be brought under § 1331, not merely that only those actions shall be brought in which administrative remedies have been exhausted. Moreover, if the third sentence is construed to be nothing more than a requirement of administrative exhaustion, it would be superfluous. This is because the first two sentences of § 405 (h), which appear in the margin,*fn4 assure that administrative exhaustion will be required. Specifically, they prevent review of decisions of the Secretary save as provided in the Act, which provision is made in § 405 (g).*fn5 The latter section prescribes

[ 422 U.S. Page 758]

     typical requirements for review of matters before an administrative agency, including administrative exhaustion.*fn6 Thus the District Court's treatment of the

[ 422 U.S. Page 759]

     third sentence of § 405 (h) not only ignored that sentence's plain language, but also relegated it to a function which is already performed by other statutory provisions.

[ 422 U.S. Page 760]

     A somewhat more substantial argument that the third sentence of § 405 (h) does not deprive the District Court of federal-question jurisdiction relies on the fact that it only affects actions to recover on "any claim arising under [Title II]" of the Social Security Act.*fn7 The argument is that the present action arises under the Constitution and not under Title II. It would, of course, be fruitless to contend that appellees' claim is one which does not arise under the Constitution, since their constitutional arguments are critical to their complaint. But it is just as fruitless to argue that this action does not also arise under the Social Security Act. For not only is it Social Security benefits which appellees seek to recover, but it is the Social Security Act which provides

[ 422 U.S. Page 761]

     both the standing and the substantive basis for the presentation of their constitutional contentions. Appellees sought, and the District Court granted, a judgment directing the Secretary to pay Social Security benefits. To contend that such an action does not arise under the Act whose benefits are sought is to ignore both the language and the substance of the complaint and judgment. This being so, the third sentence of § 405 (h) precludes resort to federal-question jurisdiction for the adjudication of appellees' constitutional contentions.

It has also been argued that Johnson v. Robinson, 415 U.S. 361 (1974), supports the proposition that appellees are not seeking to recover on a claim arising under Title II. In that case we considered 38 U.S.C. § 211 (a), which provides:S

"[T]he decisions of the [Veterans'] Administrator on any question of law or fact under any law administered by the Veterans' Administration providing benefits for veterans... shall be final and conclusive and no other official or any court of the United States shall have power or jurisdiction to review any such decision by an action in the nature of mandamus or otherwise."I

We were required to resolve whether this language precluded an attack on the constitutionality of a statutory limitation. We concluded that it did not, basically because such a limitation was not a "decision" of the Administrator "on any question of law or fact"; indeed, the "decision" had been made by Congress, not the Administrator, and the issue was one which the Administrator considered to be beyond his jurisdiction. 415 U.S., at 367-368. Thus the question sought to be litigated was simply not within § 211 (a)'s express language, and there was accordingly no basis for concluding

[ 422 U.S. Page 762]

     that Congress sought to preclude review of the constitutionality of veterans' legislation.

The language of § 405 (h) is quite different. Its reach is not limited to decisions of the Secretary on issues of law or fact. Rather, it extends to any "action" seeking "to recover on any [Social Security] claim" -- irrespective of whether resort to judicial processes is necessitated by discretionary decisions of the Secretary or by his non-discretionary application of allegedly unconstitutional statutory restrictions.

There is another reason why Johnson v. Robison is inapposite. It was expressly based, at least in part, on the fact that if § 211 (a) reached constitutional challenges to statutory limitations, then absolutely no judicial consideration of the issue would be available. Not only would such a restriction have been extraordinary, such that "clear and convincing" evidence would be required before we would ascribe such intent to Congress, 415 U.S., at 373, but it would have raised a serious constitutional question of the validity of the statute as so construed. Id., at 366-367. In the present case, as will be discussed below, the Social Security Act itself provides jurisdiction for constitutional challenges to its provisions. Thus the plain words of the third sentence of § 405 (h) do not preclude constitutional challenges. They simply require that they be brought under jurisdictional grants contained in the Act, and thus in conformity with the same standards which are applicable to non-constitutional claims arising under the Act. The result is not only of unquestionable constitutionality, but it is also manifestly reasonable, since it assures the Secretary the opportunity prior to constitutional litigation to ascertain, for example, that the particular claims involved are neither invalid for other reasons nor allowable under other provisions of the Social Security Act.

[ 422 U.S. Page 763]

     As has been stated, the Social Security Act itself provides for district court review of the Secretary's determinations. Title 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g) provides that "[a]ny individual, after any final decision of the Secretary made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision...."See n. 5, supra. The question with which we must now deal is whether this provision could serve as a jurisdictional basis for the District Court's consideration of the present case. We conclude that it provided jurisdiction only as to the named appellees and not as to the unnamed members of the class.*fn8

Section 405 (g) specifies the following requirements for judicial review: (1) a final decision of the Secretary made after a hearing; (2) commencement of a civil action within 60 days after the mailing of notice of such decision (or within such further time as the Secretary

[ 422 U.S. Page 764]

     may allow); and (3) filing of the action in an appropriate district court, in general that of the plaintiff's residence or principal place of business. The second and third of these requirements specify, respectively, a statute of limitations and appropriate venue. As such, they are waivable by the parties, and not having been timely raised below, see Fed. Rules Civ. Proc. 8 (c), 12 (h)(1), need not be considered here. We interpret the first requirement, however, to be central to the requisite grant of subject-matter jurisdiction -- the statute empowers district courts to review a particular type of decision by the Secretary, that type being those which are "final" and "made after a hearing."

In the present case, the complaint seeks review of the denial of benefits based on the plain wording of a statute which is alleged to be unconstitutional. That a denial on such grounds, which are beyond the power of the Secretary to affect, is nonetheless a decision of the Secretary for these purposes has been heretofore established. Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603 (1960). As to class members, however, the complaint is deficient in that it contains no allegations that they have even filed an application with the Secretary, much less that he has rendered any decision, final or otherwise, review of which is sought. The class thus cannot satisfy the requirements for jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g). Other sources of jurisdiction being foreclosed by § 405 (h), the District Court was without jurisdiction over so much of the complaint as concerns the class, and it should have entered an appropriate order of dismissal.

The jurisdictional issue with respect to the named appellees is somewhat more difficult. In a paragraph entitled "Exhaustion of Remedies," the complaint alleges that they fully presented their claims for benefits "to their district Social Security Office and, upon denial, to

[ 422 U.S. Page 765]

     the Regional Office for reconsideration." It further alleges that they have no dispute with the Regional Office's findings of fact or applications of statutory law, and that the only issue is a matter of constitutional law which is beyond the Secretary's competence. On their face these allegations with regard to exhaustion fall short of meeting the literal requirement of § 405 (g) that there shall have been a "final decision of the Secretary made after a hearing." They also fall short of satisfying the Secretary's regulations, which specify that the finality required for judicial review is achieved only after the further steps of a hearing before an administrative law judge and, possibly, consideration by the Appeals Council. See 20 CFR §§ 404.916, 404.940, 404.951 (1974).

We have previously recognized that the doctrine of administrative exhaustion should be applied with a regard for the particular administrative scheme at issue. Parisi v. Davidson, 405 U.S. 34 (1972); McKart v. United States, 395 U.S. 185 (1969). Exhaustion is generally required as a matter of preventing premature interference with agency processes, so that the agency may function efficiently and so that it may have an opportunity to correct its own errors, to afford the parties and the courts the benefit of its experience and expertise, and to compile a record which is adequate for judicial review. See, e.g., id., at 193-194. Plainly these purposes have been served once the Secretary has satisfied himself that the only issue is the constitutionality of a statutory requirement, a matter which is beyond his jurisdiction to determine, and that the claim is neither otherwise invalid nor cognizable under a different section of the Act. Once a benefit applicant has presented his or her claim at a sufficiently high level of review to satisfy the Secretary's administrative needs, further exhaustion would not merely be futile for the applicant,

[ 422 U.S. Page 766]

     but would also be a commitment of administrative resources unsupported by any administrative or judicial interest.

The present case, of course, is significantly different from McKart in that a "final decision" is a statutorily specified jurisdictional prerequisite. The requirement is, therefore, as we have previously noted, something more than simply a codification of the judicially developed doctrine of exhaustion, and may not be dispensed with merely by a judicial conclusion of futility such as that made by the District Court here. But it is equally true that the requirement of a "final decision" contained in § 405 (g) is not precisely analogous to the more classical jurisdictional requirements contained in such sections of Title 28 as 1331 and 1332. The term "final decision" is not only left undefined by the Act, but its meaning is left to the Secretary to flesh out by regulation.*fn9 Section 405 (l) accords the Secretary complete authority to delegate his statutory duties to officers and employees of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The statutory scheme is thus one in which the Secretary may specify such requirements for exhaustion as he deems serve his own interests in effective and efficient administration. While a court may not substitute its conclusion as to futility for the contrary conclusion of the Secretary, we believe it would be inconsistent with the congressional scheme to bar the Secretary from determining

[ 422 U.S. Page 767]

     in particular cases that full exhaustion of internal review procedures is not necessary for a decision to be "final" within the language of § 405 (g).

Much the same may be said about the statutory requirement that the Secretary's decision be made "after a hearing." Not only would a hearing be futile and wasteful, once the Secretary has determined that the only issue to be resolved is a matter of constitutional law concededly beyond his competence to decide, but the Secretary may, of course, award benefits without requiring a hearing. We do not understand the statute to prevent him from similarly determining in favor of the applicant, without a hearing, all issues with regard to eligibility save for one as to which he considers a hearing to be useless.

In the present case the Secretary does not raise any challenge to the sufficiency of the allegations of exhaustion in appellees' complaint. We interpret this to be a determination by him that for the purposes of this litigation the reconsideration determination is "final." The named appellees thus satisfy the requirements for § 405 (g) judicial review, and we proceed to the merits of their claim.*fn10

III

The District Court relied on congressional history for the proposition that the duration-of-relationship requirement was intended to prevent the use of sham marriages to secure Social Security payments. As such, concluded the court, "the requirement constitutes a presumption that marriages like Mrs. Salfi's, which did not precede

[ 422 U.S. Page 768]

     the wage earner's death by at least nine months, were entered into for the purpose of securing Social Security benefits." 373 F. Supp., at 965. The presumption was, moreover, conclusive, because applicants were not afforded an opportunity to disprove the presence of the illicit purpose. The court held that under our decisions in Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, 414 U.S. 632 (1974); Vlandis v. Kline, 412 U.S. 441 (1973); and Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972), the requirement was unconstitutional, because it presumed a fact which was not necessarily or universally true.

Our ultimate conclusion is that the District Court was wrong in holding the duration-of-relationship requirement unconstitutional. Because we are aware that our various holdings in related cases do not all sound precisely the same note, we will explain ourselves at some length.

The standard for testing the validity of Congress' Social Security classification was clearly stated in Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S., at 611: S

"Particularly when we deal with a withholding of a non-contractual benefit under a social welfare program such as [Social Security], we must recognize that the Due Process Clause can be thought to interpose a bar only if the statute manifests a patently arbitrary classification, utterly lacking in rational justification."I

In Richardson v. Belcher, 404 U.S. 78 (1971), a portion of the Social Security Act which required an otherwise entitled disability claimant to be subjected to an "offset" by reason of his simultaneous receipt of state workmen's compensation benefits was attacked as being violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The claimant in that case asserted that the provision was arbitrary in that it required offsetting of a

[ 422 U.S. Page 769]

     state workmen's compensation payment, but not of a similar payment made by a private ...


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