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IL disability lawyerAs we have discussed many times before, it often takes many years for a disability applicant to receive a final decision from Social Security. And in many of those cases, there may be several years of additional appeals following a denial of disability benefits. During this lengthy period, many disability applicants, unfortunately, pass away. Under the law, the applicant's spouse, children, or other beneficiaries may continue to pursue the disability claim.

Magistrate Rules Social Security Failed to Properly Justify Decision Denying Now-Deceased Woman Disability Benefits

Just recently, a federal judge here in Illinois ruled in favor of a widower who sought to reverse a Social Security decision denying his late wife's claim for disability benefits. The deceased injured her back in 2012 while working at a retail store. The injury was severe enough that she required surgery. But even then, she continued to suffer from chronic leg and back pain. This eventually led to her filing an application for disability benefits in 2014.

Following a 2016 hearing, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) determined the deceased was not legally disabled. Despite her impairments, the ALJ said she could still perform “light work with certain restrictions.” The applicant died in 2017, so her husband appealed the ALJ's decision on her behalf.

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IL disability lawyerIn looking at an application for disability benefits, Social Security officials must determine how your physical and mental impairments affect your ability to work in a practical sense. That is to say, if your doctors tell Social Security you can only work under certain medical restrictions, an administrative law judge (ALJ) must factor those limitations into a final evaluation of your “residual functional capacity” to work.

ALJ Failed to Consider Impact of Plaintiff's Need to Elevate His Leg Throughout the Day

Let's consider a recent disability case from here in Illinois where the ALJ failed to do this, at least in the view of a federal magistrate judge who ordered Social Security to reconsider its decision. The plaintiff in this case first applied for disability benefits more than five years ago. Although Social Security did find the plaintiff was disabled, it fixed the “onset date” of the disability in May 2014. The plaintiff alleged a much earlier onset date in September 2011.

Before the magistrate, the plaintiff argued the Social Security assigned to his case improperly evaluated several key pieces of evidence. Notably, the ALJ did not evaluate or weigh an opinion from the plaintiff's treating physician, who found that due to the plaintiff's impairments, he needed to “elevate his legs to heart level or above for 30 minutes, four times a day.”

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IL disability lawyerIn a recent post, we discussed a federal appeals court decision that chastised Social Security for its failure to properly consider the limits on a disability applicant's "concentration, persistence, and pace.” Such limitations are relevant when assessing an applicant's hypothetical ability to work in spite of their medical impairments. Yet Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) routinely downplay limitations on concentration, persistence, and pace when questioning vocational experts (VEs) at disability hearings.

Court: ALJ Failed to Ask the Right Question of Vocational Expert

And in fact, the same federal appeals court that handed down the decision we previously discussed had to remind Social Security of this yet again. On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit here in Chicago ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing after the ALJ failed to “properly address” the plaintiff's “limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace.”

The plaintiff in this particular case, DeCamp v. Berryhill, is a 55-year-old woman who applied for disability benefits, citing her brain tumor, neck and back pain, and bipolar disorder as impairments. At a 2015 hearing before an ALJ, the plaintiff testified that she suffered from frequent migraines–approximately four per week–and that she was limited in her daily activities due to chronic pain. As part of the hearing, the ALJ also posed a hypothetical question to a VE, which asked if an unskilled laborer who “may be off task or off pace up to 10 percent of the work day” outside of normal breaks could still find work in the national economy. The VE replied such work would be hypothetically available; however, if the applicant were “off pace or off task more than 15 percent of the day,” as opposed to 10 percent, then there would be “no competitive work available.”

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