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IL disability lawyerIf you are suffering from medical conditions that make it difficult or impossible to work, you may struggle to meet your needs. Fortunately, you can apply for Social Security disability benefits, which will provide you with financial support while you are unable to work. However, the Social Security Administration (SSA) often denies benefits to applicants, leaving them unsure about their ability to support themselves. If your disability claim has been denied, you can appeal this decision, and your appeal may be based on a variety of factors, including the fact that more recent medical evidence shows that you are disabled.

Magistrate Reverses Disability Denial Based on Outdated MRI Tests

One recent Illinois case demonstrates the legal issues that can arise when Social Security bases a denial of benefits on test results that may no longer be relevant. In the case of Dennis E. C., Jr. v. Commissioner of Social Security, an administrative law judge (ALJ) had denied benefits to the plaintiff based on the opinion that he had the ability to perform work in jobs available in the economy.

The plaintiff, a 39-year-old man, had previously worked as a janitor, a warehouse freight handler, and other temporary labor positions, but he reported being unable to work because of severe back pain that made it difficult to stand or sit for extended periods. He also reported difficulty kneeling, squatting, bending, reaching, climbing stairs, and performing other work-related tasks.

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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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