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How Social Security Looks at a Person's “Social Functioning” When Considering Disability Benefits

Posted by on in Social Security Disability

Chicago disability benefits lawyer, Social Security disability benefits, mental disorders, social functioning, major depressive disorderMental disorders often impair a person's social functioning. This is an important factor when applying for Social Security disability benefits, since one of the key questions agency officials must consider is whether an applicant has the “residual functional capacity” (RFC) to hold down a job, taking into account the limits on his or her social functioning. But as we often find when it comes to Social Security, the agency's administrative law judges (ALJs) are quick to minimize and dismiss concerns regarding social functioning—and mental disorders in general.

Court Cites Failure to Properly Consider Applicant's “Moderate Difficulties” in Social Settings

Consider a recent decision by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago. The Court ordered a new hearing for a woman in her mid-40s who first applied for disability benefits over five years ago. The woman—who we will identify here as the plaintiff—suffers from a number of physical and mental impairments, including major depressive disorder.

The plaintiff's treating physician diagnosed her with “moderate difficulties in social functioning.” The doctor prescribed antidepressants, which did improve the plaintiff's condition for a time; however, after losing her job and health insurance, she was forced to stop her mental-health treatment. Following a disability hearing, a Social Security ALJ agreed the plaintiff “had moderate difficulties with social functioning.”

Nevertheless, the ALJ went on to say the plaintiff could still work in a job that only required her to perform “simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, in a low stress environment.” A vocational expert who testified at the hearing said that, based on this criteria, the plaintiff could theoretically work as a “ticket seller,” “housekeeper,” or a “laundry worker.”

The problem with the ALJ's reasoning, the Seventh Circuit explained, was that he never expressly asked the vocational expert to account for the plaintiff's “moderate difficulties with social functioning.” Instead, he posed the question as what jobs could the plaintiff do that only required simple, repetitive tasks. But, these are not the same thing.

The Court noted that a person could “engage in simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a room of 100 people jammed together in a cube farm, or one can sit alone and work in total isolation.” A person with a “moderate” social functioning impairment could probably work under the latter conditions but not the former. Additionally, even stipulating the plaintiff needs to work in a low-stress environment “is similarly unhelpful as a restriction, at least without further elaboration.”

The bottom line is that Social Security is required to assess a disability applicant's ability to work in spite of their specific impairments. The ALJ failed to do that here, the Seventh Circuit concluded, so a new hearing was necessary.

Speak With a Cook County Disability Attorney Today

It is not uncommon for individuals with mental impairments to struggle in obtaining fair treatment from Social Security. That is why you should always work with an experienced Chicago disability benefits lawyer who understands the system and will aggressively represent your interests. Contact Pearson Disability Law, LLC to schedule a free consultation today.


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