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Representing Yourself Before Social Security is Never a Good Idea

Posted by on in Social Security Disability

Chicago disability benefits lawyer, Social Security Disability Insurance, unrepresented disability claimant, disability cases, disability proceedingsYou have probably heard the old proverb, “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” It may sound harsh, but representing yourself in any kind of legal proceeding is a bad idea. This is especially true when applying for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. Disability cases often take many years and can require several hearings (and appeals) to resolve in your favor. Due to the heavily fact-specific nature of disability proceedings, an attorney is not just optional but critical to your success.

Unrepresented Disability Claimant Gets Second Chance

However, if for some reason you do appear at a disability hearing without representation, the administrative law judge (ALJ) presiding over your case still has a legal obligation to give you a fair hearing. Indeed, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has appellate jurisdiction over all disability cases in Illinois, has expressly said that an ALJ “has a heightened duty to make sure that the record is developed when a claimant is unrepresented.” Among other things, this means an ALJ must be proactive in asking you questions about your disability and contacting medical professionals who have treated you or reviewed your records.

Of course, many ALJs simply use an applicant's lack of representation as an excuse to reject their claim. Consider a recent example from Illinois. A woman sought disability benefits due to her diabetes and partial blindness. She was not represented at her disability hearing, even after the ALJ gave her more time to find counsel. Following the hearing, the ALJ determined the applicant could still perform her prior work as a “residential aide” and accountant despite her medical impairments.

On appeal—this time represented by counsel—a federal magistrate judge said the ALJ failed to properly develop the factual record and ordered a new hearing. The first problem, the magistrate said, was that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the expert opinion of the applicant's treating physician. Instead, the ALJ chose to rely on the views of state agency doctors who reviewed the applicant's medical records but did not personally examine her. This is a common problem in disability cases—the tendency to rely on non-treating doctors who are more likely to tell the ALJ what he or she wants to hear, i.e. that the applicant's medical impairments are not that serious.

But the bigger problem here, according to the magistrate, was that the state doctors “did not review the complete medical record in reaching their conclusions.” Indeed, “the record contains no expert medical opinion based on a review of the complete medical record which supports the ALJ's conclusion” that the applicant is still capable of full-time employment. And even though the applicant here did not have an attorney at the hearing, Social Security regulations authorize the ALJ to “recontact a medical source if he is unable to render a decision because the evidence is insufficient or inconsistent.” The ALJ failed to do so here, leading the magistrate to conclude that another hearing was necessary.

Do You Need a Chicago Social Security Disability Attorney?

The lesson here is pretty simple: Retain a lawyer before you file for disability. You might think you have a handle on things; however, disability law is a complex web of regulation and medical jargon. Just as you would not treat diabetes without medical assistance, you should never attempt to deal with Social Security without help from an experienced Chicago disability benefits lawyer. Contact Pearson Disability Law, LLC, today if you need help with a Social Security claim today.


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