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Can Social Security Disregard a Treating Psychiatrist's Views in Favor of a Non-Treating Psychologist?

IL disability attorneyWhen reviewing Social Security disability applications, an administrative law judge (ALJ) needs to weigh the evidence offered by various medical experts. As a general rule, the ALJ should give more weight to the testimony offered by a doctor with respect to their own specialty as opposed to someone who is not. For example, if a disability applicant is unable to walk, you would credit the testimony of an orthopedic surgeon over, say, a dermatologist.

This might sound like just basic common sense. Yet there are many cases where ALJs will disregard the specialist's view in favor of a non-specialist's view–especially when the latter is willing to say the applicant's condition does not really qualify them for disability benefits. Such decision-making not only defies common sense, but it is also often in direct contravention of Social Security regulations.

Let's take this recent disability case from here in Illinois, Kathy P. v. Saul. The plaintiff in this case applied for Social Security disability benefits about five years ago. Although she suffers from a number of physical and mental impairments, the critical issue here involves her mental disorders and frequent migraines. In support of her claims, the plaintiff presented expert testimony from her treating psychiatrist. Based on her extensive treatment history, the psychiatrist told Social Security that the plaintiff “was unable to meet competitive standards for several abilities such as completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions, accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and dealing with normal work stress.”

The ALJ assigned to the plaintiff's case did not like these conclusions. Instead, the ALJ decided to give greater weight to the opinions offered by a psychologist who did not personally treat the plaintiff. The psychologist said the plaintiff could still work, provided she was “limited to simple, routine tasks,” and did not have extensive contact with members of the public. Relying largely on this opinion, the ALJ found the plaintiff did not meet the legal requirements to receive disability benefits.

On appeal, however, a federal judge said the ALJ erred in crediting the opinions of the non-treating psychologist over those of the treating psychiatrist. For one thing, the ALJ “failed to consider the specialization of” the psychiatrist. Unlike a psychologist or psychotherapist, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor. And a treating psychiatrist's “opinions regarding how Plaintiffs mental impairments would limit her ability to work fall squarely within her specialty.” At a minimum, the ALJ needed to discuss “the specialization factor” before giving greater weight to a non-specialist's views. The judge, therefore, ordered the ALJ to hold a new hearing on the plaintiff's application for disability benefits.

Speak with a Cook County Social Security Disability Attorney Today

It is critical that Social Security properly assess and weigh all of the medical evidence presented in a disability case. An experienced Chicago disability benefits lawyer can help you ensure the government follows its own rules and procedures in this regard. So if you need advice or assistance, contact Pearson Disability Law, LLC, at 312-999-0999 today to schedule a free consultation.




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