Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Harshaw v. Colvin

The Ninth Circuit affirmed in an unpublished memorandum the claim for disability in Harshaw v. Colvin.  The non-precedential memo deserves note because it marks a dangerous and wrong trend.  The court imposed issue exhaustion from the ALJ level.

Harshaw relies on Meanel v. Apfel and Silveira v. Apfel to get to the point of exhaustion and the absence of waiver of the exhaustion rule.  I know a little about those cases -- I was counsel in both. . Meanel has pedestrian pedigree.  She sought to attack vocational expert testimony based on evidence from a private vendor about job numbers; evidence never presented to the agency.  Meanel says "too late."  The claimant had counsel and court is too late.

Silveira had a companion case, Vargas.  Both raised the legal issue of application of the grids to individuals with semi-skilled backgrounds, no transferable skills, and illiterate in English.  Vargas did not raise the issue in the District Court.  Silveira did.  The court found that the legal issue was not waived and reversed in Vargas.

What do either of these cases have to do with Harshaw?  Not much.  Harshaw presented evidence to the ALJ that he suffered from pes planus, PTSD, and a personality disorder.  The record contained the evidence.  In Meanel, the record did not contain the job numbers evidence.  Sound different?  It is.  Expanding Meanel to include not only that the claimant present the evidence but also make a specific argument about the application of that evidence asks too much.  The evidence raises the issues and the ALJ is the inquisitor, not an adversary.  Meanel just doesn't apply, at all.

The district court had the first bite at the apple in Harshaw.  The court relied on two other USDC decisions:
Cisneros v. Colvin,No. 12-cv-0931-BAM, 2013 WL 5375490 at * 9 (E.D. Cal., Sept. 24, 2013) (finding waiver when plaintiff failed to raise the issue of improper past relevant work determination during administrative proceedings); Shaw v. Comm'r of SSA, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30170, *20 (N.D. Cal. 2008) (Claimant waived argument challenging past relevant work when he failed to raise that objection at the hearing);
In a typical hearing, the ALJ will ask the vocational expert to characterize the claimant's past relevant work.  The VE's get it wrong because the witness does not have access to the earnings record.  The VE will miss earnings that do not qualify as substantial gainful activity or occurred too long ago to count.  But the claimant has the burden of establishing that s/he cannot perform the past relevant work.  In cases where the VE mischaracterizes the past work and the represented claimant does nothing, then Houston, we have a problem.  That isn't waiver; that is a decision that rests on substantial evidence before the agency at the time of the decision.  Coming up with new evidence or arguments about the true nature of the past work might be too late.

But those aren't the facts of Harshaw.  The claimant alleged that the ALJ missed the other impairments and that those impairments made a difference in the outcome of the case.  Waiver -- no, the evidence was there and the claimant never has a burden to argue the case, just the burden to present the evidence that supports the claim.

The Ninth Circuit memorandum ends with the caveat that the missed impairments did not cause other limitations.  Well, if that is the case, then the waiver discussion is irrelevant.  The court should have issued a one paragraph memorandum, the last paragraph.

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