At the LaPorte Law Firm, we monitor closely the decisions of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Social Security matters. The Ninth Circuit Court hears appeals of SSA decisions for residents of western states of the U.S., including California, Hawaii, and Nevada. We follow closely the trends and rules the Court hands down, particularly in SSA disability appeals. In 2019, the Ninth Circuit has issued several unpublished opinions that we think are important to note. These unpublished opinions cannot be cited in our federal court briefs, but reflect guidance by the Court on many issues important to our clients. Here are three takeaways:
The Court has reversed several cases because the SSA unfavorable decision gave insufficient weight to the opinions of treating physicians.
Over the past year, the Ninth Circuit court has reversed several decisions that denied a claim for benefits and remanded the decision back to the administrative law judge. In 2019, the Court, on at least three occasions, overturned denial decisions by SSA because not enough weight was afforded to the reports of the claimant’s treating physician.
In one particular case, Rocha v. Berryhill, the Ninth Circuit held that the unfavorable decision was flawed because it gave no weight to the opinion of the claimant’s treating psychologist. In another recent case, Megysei v. Saul, the Court reversed an unfavorable decision because it failed to even mention the opinion of a treating physician who had a long-term relationship with the claimant over three years. The Ninth Circuit makes clear that the opinions from treating physicians should be given more weight and if they are not, the court must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting that opinion.
The Court emphasized that there must be careful consideration of the disability findings of the Veterans Administration in reaching a decision.
In Vardaman v. Saul, a claimant was denied benefits after she provided evidence that the Veterans Administration found her 80% disabled. This year, the Ninth Circuit reversed this decision and held that the VA’s finding must be given “great weight.” Because there were no valid reasons for discounting the VA’s rating, the case was remanded back to the SSA administrative law judge.
This case and other Ninth Circuit cases have consistently held that an SSA decision must do more than just mention the existence of a VA rating. The decision must either give great weight to the VA rating or if it does not; provide persuasive, specific, and valid reasons for doing so that are supported by the record.