The Social Security Administration’s Disability Insurance program encompasses a mammoth adjudicatory and appellate process, rivaling in size the entire federal judiciary. The SSDI is principally governed by validly promulgated regulations, but the SSA also uses an internal manual—“HALLEX”—to provide more detailed rules and guidance to its adjudicators and staff. The circuits have split over whether HALLEX is enforceable—whether it can bind the SSA such that violations of its provisions can be grounds for district court reversal. The Ninth and Third Circuits hold HALLEX to be per se unenforceable, with the Ninth categorically refusing to examine alleged violations. The Fifth Circuit, by contrast, will review alleged violations of HALLEX for prejudice and will remand to the SSA if prejudice is present.
The circuit split results from unclear, decades-old Supreme Court precedent on what kinds of rules under what circumstances courts can enforce to bind agencies. This Note aims to reframe the “enforceability” debate by examining more recent doctrine on internal agency guidance and by outlining how it might interact with the “Accardi principle” underlying that earlier precedent. Specifically, it suggests that typically one-way, agency-invoked doctrines like Auer and Skidmore should be understood more broadly with respect to HALLEX and similar internal guidance, where the public is often the beneficiary of gratuitous protections. This approach provides the Fifth Circuit’s approach with more certain doctrinal footing; it also preserves the Fifth Circuit’s prejudice test, derived from the Accardi principle, as an essential guiding inquiry. Ultimately, it would promote effective administration and fair agency adjudication.