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IL disability lawyerSocial Security administrative law judges (ALJs) are expected to rely on medical evidence when assessing an application for disability benefits. The most critical form of medical evidence comes from the applicant's own treating physicians. But the ALJ may also consider other forms of evidence, including something known as a GAF score.

GAF stands for the “Global Assessment of Function.” It is a rating system used to assess a disability applicant's mental function on a 1 to 100 scale. A higher score typically indicates a higher degree of mental functioning.

Now, a GAF score is simply a doctor's opinion regarding the overall impact of an applicant's mental disorders at a given time. It is not an objective diagnostic test. And an ALJ is not allowed to grant or deny disability benefits based solely–or even primarily–on a GAF score. Rather, it is simply one piece of information the ALJ may consider as part of an applicant's overall case.

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IL disability attorneyIn a recent post, we discussed a U.S. Supreme Court decision that held a vocational expert who testifies at a Social Security disability benefits hearing is not “categorically” required to disclose the actual data supporting their analysis. Some courts, including those here in Illinois, had previously enforced such a categorical rule. But under the Supreme Court's decision, Biestek v. Berryhill, Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) have wide discretion to decide whether or not such data is relevant to a particular case.

Supreme Court Ruling Means Applicants Cannot Simply “Demand” Access to Data

The Chicago-based U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently applied Biestek to reject an unsuccessful disability applicant's request for a new hearing. The plaintiff in this case, Krell v. Saul, argued the ALJ erred by refusing to issue a subpoena to the vocational expert who testified at his disability hearing.

The plaintiff is a Wisconsin man who was previously employed as an ironworker. He filed for disability benefits due to a knee impairment. Prior to a 2014 hearing, the plaintiff's attorney asked the ALJ overseeing the case to issue a subpoena for “certain documents” upon which the vocational expert who was scheduled to testify “may rely” on in forming their opinions. The attorney explained such documents were necessary to facilitate the plaintiff's ability to properly cross-examine the expert.

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IL disability attorneyA key part of any Social Security disability hearing occurs when an administrative law judge (ALJ) poses one or more “hypothetical questions” to a vocational expert. These questions are designed to help the ALJ determine what kind of jobs the applicant for disability benefits may still be able to perform in spite of their physical or mental impairments. The applicant has the right to cross-examine the VE regarding these hypothetical questions, as well as ask the ALJ to incorporate certain information when formulating the questions in the first place.

Seventh Circuit Rejects Disability Applicant's Appeal of Fourth Social Security Denial

But the mere fact an applicant disagrees with the ALJ's hypothetical question does not, in and of itself, mean the question was invalid. A recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Saunders v. Saul, offers a helpful illustration of this point.

In this case, a Wisconsin man applied for Social Security disability benefits in 2005. Over the intervening 14 years, there have been at least four separate hearings on the plaintiff's application, all of which ended with an ALJ ruling he did not qualify as legally disabled.

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