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IL disability attorneyA Social Security disability hearing is not a criminal trial. The role of the Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) is not to assess your honesty, character, or credibility as a person. The ALJ's responsibility is to assess the medical evidence presented and make a fact-based determination as to whether or not you meet the listed requirements for disability benefits.

Federal Court Criticizes Social Security ALJ for Relying “Too Heavily” on Judgments About Applicant's Character

Although Social Security's own regulations instruct ALJs to avoid making statements regarding a disability applicant's “overall character or truthfulness,” this principle is not always followed in practice. When that happens, a federal court may decide an unsuccessful applicant is entitled to a new hearing.

To give a recent example, in a June 2020 decision, Dawn K. v. Saul, an Illinois federal magistrate judge found an ALJ relied “too heavily on character-doubting inconsistencies” in denying the plaintiff's application for disability benefits. The plaintiff is a woman in her mid-40s who applied for disability more than four years ago based on a number of impairments, notably problems with her right arm.

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IL disability attorneyEven if you are unable to return to your previous job due to a medical condition, Social Security will not award you disability benefits unless it is satisfied that you are incapable of performing any type of meaningful work. The opinions of your treating physician are often critical towards proving this is the case. Of course, some Social Security administrative law judges may try to “play doctor” and attempt to disregard (or misrepresent) the views of your actual physicians.

Take this recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, T.D.B. v. Saul. The plaintiff in this case previously worked as a registered nurse. In 2007, she suffered a serious wrist injury when she was attacked by a patient. The plaintiff's physician subsequently diagnosed her with chronic regional pain syndrome (CRPS). By 2010, the physician concluded the plaintiff had “reached maximum medical improvement,” which is a legal term used in connection with workers' compensation proceedings. At the time, this meant the plaintiff would be limited to “full-time sedentary work.”

In 2012, however, the treating physician revised this diagnosis. In a separate letter to the workers' compensation insurance adjuster assigned to the plaintiff's claim, the doctor said the plaintiff was “essentially unemployable,” i.e., she was no longer medically capable of returning to work in any capacity on a full-time basis.

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IL disability attorneyIt is not uncommon for Social Security officials to initially deny your claim for disability benefits. Fortunately, you have certain appeal rights. In fact, there are four levels to the disability appeals process. First, you can ask for reconsideration. Second, you may request a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Third, you can seek review of the ALJ's decision with Social Security's Appeals Council. Finally, you can seek judicial review of a “final” decision to deny benefits in federal court.

Illinois Magistrate Dismisses Social Security Appeal Filed One Day Late

At each stage of the appeals process, there are strict deadlines that you are expected to understand and comply with. If you file an appeal even one day late, a court may refuse to hear your case, regardless of the underlying merits. So it is critical that you act promptly to address a negative decision from Social Security.

For example, in a February 2020 case, McGhee v. Commissioner of Social Security, an Illinois federal magistrate judge granted the government's motion to dismiss an appeal brought by an unsuccessful disability applicant. The applicant previously went through the first three stages of the appeals process described above. In November 2017, an ALJ rejected the applicant's claim. The applicant then sought review from the Appeals Council.

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