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IL disability lawyerBy law, you have the right to counsel when applying for Social Security disability benefits. This means you can–and should–work with a qualified disability benefits lawyer. And while you can waive your right to counsel and represent yourself before Social Security, this is generally not in your best interests.

Court Holds Social Security Gave Disability Applicant Adequate Warnings Regarding Waiver of Counsel

A recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago illustrates the problems with attempting to represent yourself in a disability case. The plaintiff in this lawsuit, Jozefyk v. Berryhill, initially sought disability benefits citing a number of physical and mental impairments, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and avoidant personality disorder.

Prior to a hearing on his disability claim before a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ), the agency sent the plaintiff several notices explaining his right to counsel. Social Security does not provide representation itself, but it does refer applicants to services that assist in finding a qualified attorney.

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IL disability lawyerSocial Security disability claims are supposed to be decided on the basis of medical evidence. But in far too many cases, Social Security administrative judges (ALJs) selectively ignore medical evidence that favors the applicant. While an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence in fine detail, it is not acceptable to disregard evidence simply because it might benefit the applicant's case.

Social Security ALJ Accuses Disability Applicant of “Cheating” Without Evidence

In an April 29 decision, Muriel EF v. Commissioner of Social Security, a federal magistrate judge from here in Illinois ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing for an applicant based on ALJ's disturbing “pattern” of cherry picking evidence. The plaintiff in this case is a woman in her 50s with a long history of medical impairments, including sciatica, spinal damage, and obesity.

In fact, the plaintiff's condition required her to undergo multiple spinal surgeries. Yet in denying the plaintiff's application for disability benefits, the ALJ “ignored” and “glossed over” this surgical history, as the magistrate put it. Indeed, the plaintiff “had two lumbar surgeries, which the ALJ also did not mention at all” in her decision. Another set of surgeries warranted nothing more than a mention in a single sentence. Similarly, the ALJ did not mention or discuss the results of a medical exam the plaintiff received–on her doctor's advice–after applying for disability benefits.

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IL disability lawyerIn making your case for disability benefits, it is important to present Social Security with as much expert medical evidence as possible. Otherwise, an agency administrative law judge (ALJ) may attempt to “fill in the gaps” with their own, non-expert opinions. And while such conduct contradicts the law governing disability benefits, the burden is then on the applicant to show the error on appeal, which only makes the process go slower.

Magistrate to Social Security ALJ: “Not a Doctor. Shh.”

To give an example, a federal magistrate judge recently began an opinion reversing Social Security's decision to deny an application for disability benefits with a quote from the popular television program Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “Not a doctor. Shh.”

The magistrate was expressing his frustration at yet another instance of an ALJ impermissibly “playing doctor” when it comes to assessing an applicant's medical limitations in the workplace. In this particular case, the magistrate said the ALJ simply ignored the “only evidence in the record” because it contradicted the ALJ's opinions.

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