By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a District Court affirmance of a decision of the commissioner of Social Security denying disability benefits to a woman who claims she can’t work based on bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and other medical problems, proclaiming that the administrative law judge provided indications of bias including making note that the applicant is fat.
A memorandum opinion, filed Tuesday, reverses a decision by District Court Judge George H. Wu of the Central District of California, who adopted the report and recommendations of Magistrate Judge John E. McDermott. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) is not identified in the opinion and most of the District Court’s records are sealed for sake of according privacy to the applicant, Yolanda Martinez.
The opinion—signed by Circuit Judges Ronald M. Gould and Kim Wardlaw, joined by District Court Judge James Donato of the Northern District of California, sitting by designation—declares:
“The ALJ erred in discounting Martinez’s testimony about the severity and persistence of her symptoms. We are troubled by some of the ALJ’s statements, which hinted at an implicit bias against Martinez. For example, the ALJ commented on Martinez’s obesity. He insinuated that she exaggerated the severity of her symptoms to obtain more controlled medication. And he referred to her allegations as part of her ‘quest for disability benefits.’
“But he did not find, explicitly or implicitly, that she was a malingerer. Without affirmative evidence of malingering, the ALJ could only reject Martinez’s testimony ‘by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.’…We have considered the ALJ’s reasons and find them unsound. The ALJ fell short of meeting the standards.”
Attorneys for Social Security Commissioner Andrew M. Saul maintained that the unnamed ALJ made reasoned findings. At oral argument on May 4, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Paul Talbert told the panel that the ALJ was concerned over such matters as Martinez’s “suspicious reasons for early refills of prescriptions,” her “non-compliance with prescribed treatment” and seemingly unnecessary hospitalizations.
Questioned by Gould as to why the ALJ discounted the view of a treating physician that Martinez was incapable of performing even low-stress work, Talbert said that the ALJ had explained, in effect:
“Well, that’s not consistent the record that shows that she’s able to shop, she can drive herself, she can be trusted to take care of her nephew, she’s able to interact with her family, she plays with her nephew regularly, she’s able to live with family at times, and at other times she can live on her own which is inconsistent with the claim that she’s basically dependent on other people.”
Martinez’s lawyer, Andrew Thomas Koenig of Ventura, said, in rebuttal:
“She drove herself home from the emergency room. The judge said, ‘Oh, you drove,’
“She was looking for work on Craigslist. He said, ‘You were looking for work.’
“She said, ‘I know I was cruising on Craigslist, but I couldn’t do it.’
“Those were not inconsistent statements. He took them out of context.”
Ninth Circuit’s View
The Ninth Circuit panel rejected the suggestion that Martinez’s attempts to lead a normal life indicated an ability to work, saying:
“The ALJ noted that Martinez was able to shop on the internet, play with and care for her nephew, drive, prepare meals, and live alone or in a house with others. That Martinez could perform these tasks at home, however, does not mean that she could adequately meet the more arduous demands of a full-time job.”
The panel added:
“Nor were Martinez’s allegations of disability incredible simply because she occasionally looked for work on Craigslist and other websites.”
Testimony by treating physicians as well as lay testimony by Martinez’s friends and family members as to what they had observed was improperly discounted by the ALJ, the panel said.
Koenig sought judicial notice that in a decision rendered after the one in issue, Martinez was found to be disabled. The panel said in a footnote:
“Although we take judicial notice of the ALJ decision referenced in Martinez’s motion, that decision concerned a different time period and was based on different allegations of disability, so it has no bearing on our decision in this appeal.”
The case is Martinez v. Saul, 20-55535.
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