Friday, July 8, 2016

A Dangerous Trend -- Re-Writing the ALJ Decision

Unpublished memoranda -- yawn, they are not precedential.  The only parties that care are the parties to that memorandum and onlookers waiting for trends to develop.  Roy v. Colvin is such a memorandum.

The court found that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of Dr. Eisenhauer.  The question is always materiality -- would it have mattered.  Under Stout v. Commissioner, the thought experiment assumes that the improperly rejected evidence is true and then asks would that credited evidence change the outcome.  Roy finds that the ALJ could have rejected the findings of Dr. Eisenhauer because those findings were brief and conclusory.  But the ALJ never found Dr. Eisenhauer's opinions to be brief and conclusory.  The Ninth Circuit said that.  Neither the District Court before it nor the Ninth Circuit on de novo review gets to weigh the facts.  Did the ALJ commit legal error or did the ALJ make a fact finding lacking the support of substantial evidence?  That is the sole function of the court.

Where the ALJ thinks that the report of a doctor belongs to another person and it turns out the ALJ was wrong and where the ALJ gives no other reasons for rejecting that opinion evidence, the court should NOT re-write the ALJ decision to give a reason that the ALJ did not offer.  "We are constrained to review the reasons that ALJ asserts.  SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947)."  Connett v. Barnhart.  The Ninth Circuit lacks the judicial power to add reasons that the ALJ did not articulate.  This stands at the corner of administrative law -- don't excuse a decision because you think this ALJ might have decided it the way that you would because you, the court, are not the fact finder.

Spiva v. Astrue said it best: the government seems "determined to dissolve the Chenery doctrine in an acid of harmless error."

The Ninth Circuit should adopt and follow Spiva lest we all ingest a corrosive acid that gives everyone a jurisprudential ulcer.


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