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IL disability lawywerEven if you otherwise meet the legal definition of disabled, Social Security may still deny your claim for disability benefits if there is evidence that you can still perform your “past relevant work.” In some cases, Social Security makes this assessment by referencing the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. This is an outdated catalog previously published by the U.S. Department of Labor that purported to define approximately 13,000 different types of work available throughout the country.

Although the dictionary has not been updated since the 1990s, Social Security continues to rely on it in disability cases. Federal courts have tried to restrict the use of the dictionary. In fact, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over disability appeals from Illinois, has said that for “composite jobs”–i.e., a position that has “significant elements of two or more occupations”–Social Security may not rely on the dictionary at all.

Federal Court Holds Social Security Improperly Classified Disability Applicant's Prior Work

This issue came up in a recent Seventh Circuit decision, Ray v. Berryhill, in which the Court ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing for an applicant suffering from on a number of physical impairments. The plaintiff previously worked as a bus monitor. In that job, he needed to assist disabled children by lifting them into their seats, strapping down wheelchairs, and monitoring the children in general, according to court records.

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IL disability lawyerLast year, we discussed a case that was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court involving Social Security regulations for compensating lawyers who successfully pursue disability claims on behalf of their clients. On January 8, 2019, the Court issued its decision, which provided important clarification of the law in this area.

Justices: Caps for Agency, Court Representation Are Separate

To briefly review what this case, Culbertson v. Berryhill, was about: A Social Security attorney from Florida represented a woman who was seeking disability benefits. After going through the lengthy administrative review process, Social Security denied the woman's application. The woman then decided to challenge that decision by suing the Social Security Administration in federal court.

As part of the lawsuit, the woman signed a contingency-fee agreement with her attorney, which provided he would receive 25 percent of any past-due disability benefits she received if the court action proved successful. And in fact, the lawsuit did succeed. Social Security awarded past-due benefits and the agency withheld 25 percent of that amount to pay the attorney's fees.

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IL disability lawyerOne of the key things Social Security looks for when assessing an application for disability benefits is whether or not the applicant can “make an adjustment to other work.” Many people assume they are disabled simply because they cannot go back to their old job. But the legal threshold is whether or not someone with the applicant's impairments and skill level can find any meaningful work in the economy.

To make such assessments, Social Security typically relies on the testimony of vocational experts (VEs), who are asked to estimate the type and number of jobs available to a person who hypothetically matches the disability applicant's profile. Unfortunately, it is not always clear exactly how VEs make their estimates or reach their conclusions with respect to a given disability applicant. To further complicate matters, he VEs often depend upon outdated government classification manuals when examining the types of work available.

Magistrate Orders New Hearing After Vocational Expert Refuses to Provide Data Sources

In some cases, a VEs failure to properly explain his or her methodology can justify granting an unsuccessful applicant a new disability hearing. That is exactly what happened in a recent Illinois case, Tolbert v. Berryhill. The plaintiff suffers from a number of physical impairments–including “arthritis, hypertension, right carpal tunnel, and asthma,” according to court records–that she said made it impossible for her to work.

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