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Chicago social security disability appeal lawyerSocial Security officials often try to discredit or discount the expert opinions of a disability applicant's treating physicians. In many cases, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ)–who is not a doctor–will attempt to substitute their own judgment for that of the medical professionals. Such actions are inconsistent with Social Security's own regulations and can lead to significant problems for the agency if a rejected applicant seeks judicial review in the courts. 

Federal Appeals Court Orders SSA to Reconsider Disability Applicant's Case

For example, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago recently ordered Social Security to conduct a new hearing in the case of a disability applicant who was previously denied benefits. The main problem identified by the appeals court was the ALJ's failure to properly explain her reasons for largely ignoring the medical testimony of the plaintiff's treating physicians. Although the Court did not rule that the plaintiff was legally disabled, it did hold that Social Security owed him a better explanation for denying his application.

Here is briefly what happened: the plaintiff is a former maintenance mechanic who is now in his mid-50s. He underwent two spinal surgeries in 2005 and 2006 but continues to suffer from chronic back pain. For this reason, he initially applied for Social Security disability benefits in 2012. At a subsequent hearing on the application before a Social Security ALJ, the plaintiff presented expert evidence from his primary care doctor and neurosurgeon, who both agreed that he was medically “unable to work” in his former job due to his ongoing back pain. The neurosurgeon further explained that the plaintiff was limited to “sedentary work.”


Chicago disability benefits denial attorneyInconsistency is often a major factor in Social Security denying disability claims. If the agency feels your doctor's opinions are inconsistent with the other medical evidence available, your claim can be denied. Similarly, if an administrative law judge (ALJ) feels your own testimony with respect to your symptoms–especially with respect to subjective matters like pain–is inconsistent, that may also form the basis for denying a claim.

Appeals Court Sides With Social Security Despite Problems With ALJ's Reasoning

Consider a recent decision by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago. The plaintiff in this case unsuccessfully applied for disability benefits. He previously worked for a chemical company, and while loading chemicals onto a truck at work one day, he “felt pain in his low back.” The pain persisted, so he eventually saw a specialist, who determined the plaintiff had a large disc herniation “that was pinching a spinal nerve root.”

Although doctors initially advised a conservative course of treatment–i.e., physical therapy–the plaintiff ultimately needed back surgery. This led him to stop working in 2007. In 2008, a physical therapist suggested the plaintiff could resume performing “light” work. However, the plaintiff did not return to work and instead applied for disability benefits in 2012.


Chicago social security benefits attorney alcohol abuseMany Illinois residents suffer from alcohol or drug addiction. Such conditions can substantially impair a person's ability to maintain gainful employment. Unfortunately, Social Security tends to treat addiction as a moral failing rather than a medical condition. According to federal regulations, drug and alcohol addiction are not impairments that qualify an individual for disability benefits. In fact, Social Security may reject an applicant with other impairments if it determines that drug addiction or alcoholism is a “contributing material factor” towards their disability. 

Court Holds Applicant Not Legally Disabled, Regardless of Alcoholism

In plain English, if Social Security thinks you would be fine to work if you stopped drinking, it will find that you are not legally disabled. The burden of proof is on you, as the applicant, to prove that alcoholism is not material to your disability. This is in addition to the burden all applicants must meet to prove they have a disability in the first place.

A recent decision by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Barrett v. Berryhill, offers a helpful illustration. This case involved a disability applicant who suffered from bipolar disorder and alcoholism. According to the applicant, he “started drinking as a teenager,” and by the age of 27, he was “drinking one to two six-packs a day, for five days per week.” After the applicant stopped working in 2009, his condition worsened. Eventually, he was formally diagnosed with alcohol dependence. In 2011, the applicant entered a 13-month recovery program, which he successfully completed in January 2013.


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