Friday, May 01, 2015

disability - incomplete hypo to VE not harnless error - remand

Salmela v. Colvin – ED Pa. –  April 30, 2015



ALJ failed to present the VE with a hypothetical question that completely presented Mr. Salmela’s limitations.  Case remanded for further proceedings.


In questioning a vocational expert, the Third Circuit has held “in the clearest of terms” that a hypothetical question must include all of a claimant’s impairments that are supported by the record.....If the hypothetical does not include all of the claimant’s substantiated impairments, “the question is deficient and the expert’s answer to it cannot be considered substantial evidence.” Id.


Therefore, courts in this Circuit have repeatedly found that a failure to include limitations in mental functioning in a hypothetical question posed to a vocational expert calls for remand....., 2015) (remanding because the failure of the ALJ to include moderate limitations in social functioning in the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert rendered the question “‘deficient,’” such that it could not “‘be considered substantial evidence’” and was not harmless error) (quoting Chrupcala v. Heckler, 829 F.2d 1269, 1276 (3d Cir. 1987)); Pounds v. Colvin, Civil Action No. 13-440, 2014 WL 3845728, at *4-6 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 4, 2014) (remanding and holding that including a limitation on plaintiff’s interaction with the general public was insufficient to account for moderate limitations in social functioning); Seagraves v. Colvin, CA No. 13-718, 2014 WL 657549, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 20, 2014) (remanding for the ALJ to either explain the omission of plaintiff’s moderate limitations in social functioning from the description of plaintiff’s residual functional capacity/hypothetical question or to obtain vocational expert testimony in response to a complete and accurate hypothetical); Debias v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 11-3545, 2012 WL 2120451, at *5-6 (E.D. Pa. June 12, 2012) (finding the vocational expert’s testimony “inherently flawed” because of a failure to include moderate limitations in social functioning and remanding “so the ALJ can provide an accurate hypothetical that includes Plaintiff’s moderate social function impairment”); Lam v. Astrue, Civil Action No. 09-4331, 2011 WL 1884006, at *14 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2011) (“Until the ALJ forecloses the possibility that the VE could have changed his testimony if the ALJ had included limitations pertinent to the ALJ’s own finding of ‘moderate’ limitations in social functioning, the VE’s answer to the hypothetical as posed cannot be said to constitute substantial evidence upon which the ALJ can properly rely.”).


Here, the ALJ clearly found that Mr. Salmela had moderate limitations in social functioning, but failed to include those limitations in her description of Mr. Salmela’s residual functional capacity or in her hypothetical question to the vocational expert. Because the ALJ did not explain her failure to include Mr. Salmela’s moderate limitations in social functioning at these later stages in the analysis, the Court may not speculate now as to her potential reasons for doing so. Thus, given that it is impossible to tell whether the omission was intentional, the Court must turn to the more difficult question of whether the omission, intentional or not, was harmless.