Deviations from Hearing Appeals Litigation and Law Manual in Administrative Law Judge’s Reasoning

In a recent district court decision, the plaintiff sought judicial review of a California administrative law decision denying her application for benefits under the Social Security Act. The plaintiff had stated her onset of disability was April 28, 2010. The plaintiff’s request for review was denied. At the district court level, the parties moved for summary judgment.

The district court explained that anyone who files a social security disability claim needs to show she is unable to perform any substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable mental or physical impairment that has gone on or is anticipated to last for 12 or more months. The administrative law judge is supposed to apply a 5-step sequential process to decide disability. The administrative law judge has a special duty to fully develop the record.

In this case, the administrative law judge found that the plaintiff hadn’t engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date. At the second step, the claimant had the burden of showing a serious impairment or group of impairments. The administrative law judge found the plaintiff had suffered from depression, obesity, and degenerative disc disease.

At the third step, the administrative law judge compared the claimant’s impairments to those listed. The claimant had the burden of proving her impairments equaled or met an impairment in the listing. The administrative law judge found she didn’t have a group of impairments equal to the listed impairments.

At the fourth step, the administrative law judge found the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to do light work with the exception that the plaintiff could carry 20 pounds sometimes and 10 pounds often. The administrative law judge found that the plaintiff wasn’t able to do past relevant work.

At the fifth step, the administrative law judge needs to decide whether the claimant is able to do other work, considering residual functional capacity as well as personal attributes such as education, work experience and age. In this case, the administrative law judge found that there were jobs in sufficient amounts in the market that the plaintiff could have done. Therefore the judge determined that the plaintiff was not disabled from 2010-2015.

The plaintiff argued that the administrative law judge had made a mistake in relying on the testimony of the vocational expert to support her decision without discussing or acknowledging objections to the expert’s testimony. The plaintiff argued that the administrative law judge was obliged to explicitly decide on objections in his decision. She relied on the principle that SSDI proceedings are non-adversarial, as well as the Hearing Appeals Litigation and Law Manual (HALLEX).

The order the plaintiff cited showed that it granted the parties’ stipulation for remand. In the stipulation, the parties agreed that the administrative law judge would balance the vocational expert evidence against the other evidence and explain how the vocational evidence was weighed. It also required the administrative law judge to rule on the objection and talk about any ruling in the decision.

The court found that there was no indication that the order granting a stipulation by the parties and signed by a mediator overruled the established principle that duties HALLEX imposed were not judicially enforceable. The court found that the plaintiff hadn’t shown that the administrative law judge owed a legal duty under HALLEX to specifically rule on the plaintiff’s post-hearing objections in her decision. The court also found that any error in the administrative law judge’s reliance on the vocational expert was harmless and there were no errors with regard to the objections. The plaintiff’s summary judgment motion was denied and the defendant’s was granted.

Many people find it difficult to obtain Social Security Disability benefits. An experienced Social Security lawyer may make a difference to the outcome of your case. If you believe you may need to apply for Social Security Disability benefits in Fresno, contact Peña & Bromberg, PLC at 559-439-9700 or via our online form.

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