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Does Morbid Obesity Qualify a Person for Disability Benefits?

Posted on in Social Security Disability Medical Conditions

b2ap3_thumbnail_obesity.jpgObesity does not simply mean a person is a few pounds over their ideal weight. Rather, it is defined as a “complex disease involving an excessive amount of body fat.” In some cases, a person's obesity may be severe enough to qualify them for Social Security disability benefits.

Now, it is important to understand that obesity, in and of itself, is no longer considered a standalone disability by Social Security. That is to say, Social Security will not assume you are unable to work because you suffer from obesity. But Social Security must take obesity into consideration when determining any limitations on your ability to work.

Magistrate: Social Security Acknowledged, But Did Not Discuss, Impact of Disability Applicant's Obesity

A recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois illustrates the role obesity should play in a disability application. The plaintiff, in this case, applied for disability benefits, stating he has been unable to work since 2009 due to a variety of impairments, including a back injury, arthritis, and diabetes.

Following a hearing on the plaintiff's application, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) agreed the plaintiff suffered from a number of “severe impairments,” which included obesity. But the ALJ nevertheless found these impairments did not add up to a legal disability and denied the plaintiff's request for benefits.

Critically, the ALJ said the plaintiff could still perform “light work” in spite of his conditions. In practical terms, this would mean the plaintiff could perform such normal work tasks as lifting up to 20 pounds, standing or walking for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, “frequently” climbing stairs, and even occasionally climbing ropes or ladders.

On appeal, the magistrate judge found the ALJ's conclusions troubling. For one thing, the evidence presented at the hearing did not support a finding the plaintiff could still perform light work. Social Security cited the plaintiff's testimony mowed his lawn on one occasion as proof he could still perform “light chores.” But as the magistrate noted, this did not translate to the ability to “standing and walking for up to six hours every workday.”

The magistrate went on to criticize the ALJ for failing to consider the impact of the plaintiff's obesity on his ability to work. The medical evidence on this issue was not in dispute: The plaintiff weighs over 300 pounds and has a body mass index (BMI) of 40, which is classified as “morbidly obese.” Although the ALJ said she “considered” the plaintiff's obesity in making her decision, the magistrate said there was no actual “discussion” of this issue.

Indeed, the magistrate said he could not “imagine a more invalid finding that the one made” by the ALJ, “namely that a 51-year-old, morbidly obese man, with bad knees and a severe back impairment could nonetheless climb stairs up to 6 hours a day, or even occasionally haul himself up a rope with his bad shoulder.” The magistrate, therefore, ordered Social Security to grant the plaintiff a new hearing in order to properly address this and other problems with the ALJ's original decision.

Speak with a Chicago Disability Benefits Attorney Today

It is far too easy to dismiss the impact of obesity or morbid obesity on a person's ability to find meaningful work. But this does not justify allowing Social Security officials to ignore the law. If you need assistance from a qualified Chicago Social Security lawyer, contact Pearson Disability Law, LLC, at 312-999-0999 today to schedule a free consultation.




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