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Properly Assessing Mental Impairments in a Disability Case

 Posted on January 12, 2016 in Denied Social Security Benefits

mental disabilities, chicago social security disability attorneyMental disabilities affecting a person's ability to work are often dismissed or ignored by officials overseeing the Social Security Disability insurance program. But there are many types of mental conditions, such as “deficiencies of concentration, persistence, or pace,” which may qualify a person for Social Security disability benefits. In order to determine whether your mental condition qualifies you for disability, a doctor must complete a form known as a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment (MRFCA).

Part One of the MRFCA asks your doctor to rank your functioning in various categories, such as your ability to “remember locations and work-like procedures” or “carry out detailed instructions.” In each category, the doctor must describe your limitations, if any, by choosing words such as “mild” or “extreme.” Later, in Part Three of the MRFCA, the doctor must offer his or her “summary conclusions in narrative form.”

The MRFCA alone does not establish you have a mental disability for Social Security purposes. Rather, at a hearing before a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ), a “vocational expert” will be asked to determine your “hypothetical” ability to work, taking into account the findings of your doctor on the MRFCA. The Social Security Administration has argued that in formulating these hypothetical scenarios, the vocational expert need only consider the physician's narrative statement on Part Three of the MRFCA and need not address specific items checked in Part One.

While some federal courts accept the Social Security Administration's views on this subject, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees federal courts and disability claims in Illinois, has rejected this position. In at least two recent cases, the Seventh Circuit has made it explicitly clear that vocational experts and ALJs must consider the entire MRFCA form. As the court explained in a decision issued this past July, “This circuit has declined to adopt a blanket rule that checked boxes in Section I of the MRFCA form indicating moderate difficulties in mental functioning need not be incorporated into a hypothetical to the [vocational expert].”

Magistrate “Disturbed” by Social Security Ignoring the Law

Nevertheless, Social Security has been slow to heed the Seventh Circuit's commands. Consider a recent decision by a federal magistrate from here in Illinois. The applicant in this case is a 38-year-old woman who claimed, among other impairments, persistent migraine headaches and major depressive disorder. A doctor examined the applicant and filled out a MRFCA form. On Part One of the form, he described the applicant as “moderately limited” in six areas, including her “ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods,” as well as her “[a]bility to interact appropriately with the general public.”

A Social Security ALJ acknowledged the applicant suffered from multiple impairments but still determined she was not disabled. On appeal, the federal magistrate said the ALJ failed to “adequately consider all of the limitations found” in the applicant's MRFCA form. More to the point, the ALJ did not address all of the six items noted by the doctor in Part One of the form. Before the magistrate, Social Security argued the ALJ “was not required” to consider these items.

The magistrate vehemently disagreed. Indeed, he said it was “disturbing” that Social Security had ignored the recent Seventh Circuit decisions rejecting this same argument. In fact, the appeals court's most recent decision came just a week before Social Security filed its brief in this case. Accordingly, the magistrate said the applicant here was entitled to a new hearing.

Need Help with a Disability Claim?

As this case illustrates, Social Security may improperly deny your application for disability benefits based on a plainly incorrect reading of the law. That is why you need to have an experienced Chicago Social Security Disability attorney by your side. Contact Pearson Disability Law, LLC, today if you would like to speak with someone right away about your case.




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