Hiler v. Astrue

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Disability Law
  • Date Filed: 08-09-2012
  • Case #: 10-36171
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge M. Smith for the Court; Circuit Judges Goodwin and Fletcher.
  • Full Text Opinion

In a Social Security Disability hearing, an ALJ errs by relying solely on an interim Veterans Affairs (VA) disability decision, where a later VA decision rejects the interim decision.

Clinton Hiler (Hiler) contends the ALJ erred and her findings are not supported by substantial evidence because it was error for her to rely on one specific rating decision from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Hiler’s second claim regarding his primary physician is not addressed. The ALJ used the 5-step “sequential evaluation process under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520” to find Hiler was temporarily disabled, which ended December 4, 1998, because of medical improvement of his condition. However, on July 20, 1998, Mr. Hiler had surgery for similar pain, where his Doctor deemed him suitable for “sedentary work.” Conversely, the ALJ used a 2001 VA assessment to find “Hiler had residual functional capability to lift or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally [and] to [sit or stand] for six hours of an eight-hour day.” While a VA decision “does not necessarily compel the Social Security Administration to reach an identical result,” due to the similarities between the Social Security and VA’s disabilities programs, the ALJ must consider and “ordinarily give[s] great weight to” the VA’s finding in making his decision. Since the programs are not identical, “the ALJ may give less weight to a VA disability rating if he gives persuasive, specific, valid reasons for doing so that are supported by the record.” Since Hiler’s records include multiple VA decisions, reporting various degrees of disability, the ALJ “erred in relying only on the 2001 decision,” because “[t]he 2001 decision only proposed changes to Hiler’s ratings.” The decision the ALJ relied on made “no final changes as to Hiler’s disability rating, nor did it terminate his individual unemployability rating.” The Court said the decisions were “not inconsistent” with another, and the ALJ erred by relying on a 2001 decision while ignoring the 1998 and 2002 decisions. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

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