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How Does Social Security Assess Whether I Have a “Severe Impairment”?

Posted on in Social Security Disability

Chicago disability benefits lawyer, severe impairmentThere are five steps Social Security must follow in assessing an application for disability benefits. The second step is a “medical screen to deny applicants without a severe impairment.” If the applicant presents medical evidence indicating nothing more than a “slight abnormality” that only has a minimal effect on their ability to work, then Social Security can reject the disability claim without conducting any further analysis.

It is important to note, however, that this Step 2 analysis is only designed to weed out groundless claims. Only in later steps should Social Security get into a more detailed assessment of the applicant's medical condition and capacity to work. Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases in Illinois recently where Social Security has tried to short-circuit applicants' due process rights by improperly denying a claim at Step 2.

Social Security Ordered to Hear Silicosis Victim's Case for a Third Time

Here is just one recent example. This case involves a man who has been trying to receive disability benefits for over five years. He has already faced two separate hearings before a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ). But thanks to a recent ruling from a federal magistrate, he will get a third opportunity to make his case.

The applicant suffers from silicosis, a severe lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust. Most silicosis cases are the result of workplace exposure. That was the case here: the applicant worked for nearly 20 years as a concrete laborer, where he was routinely exposed to silica dust.

After an initial hearing in 2013, the ALJ said the applicant's silicosis qualified as a “severe impairment” under Step 2. However, the ALJ still denied benefits because she determined—“shockingly,” in the magistrate's opinion—that silicosis did not in any way limit the applicant's ability to keep working.

Even the Social Security Administration could not defend the ALJ's reasoning. The agency agreed to give the applicant a second hearing, which took place in 2015 before the same ALJ. Once again, the ALJ denied the applicant was disabled—only this time, she “changed her mind at Step Two,” according to the magistrate and decided the applicant's “silicosis was not a severe impairment during the relevant period.” This negated the need to decide whether the applicant could still work despite his impairment.

The magistrate said the ALJ got it wrong again. The ALJ essentially jumped the gun by making a detailed clinical assessment of the applicant's silicosis at Step 2. Yet again, Step 2 is only designed to weed out merit-less claims. That does not describe this case, the magistrate said. To the contrary, the applicant's own doctors diagnosed him with “moderate to severe” silicosis in both of his lungs. “To take perhaps an overly literal approach,” the magistrate said, “why wouldn't a diagnosis of severe silicosis establish that there was a severe impairment?”

Do You Need Help From an Illinois Social Security Disability Attorney?

The magistrate said he hoped that Social Security would reassign the applicant's claim to a different ALJ so that the court “does not see a third erroneous decision in this case.” Indeed, there are too many cases where Social Security repeats its mistakes by forcing disability applicants to retry their case before an already hostile ALJ.

This is why it is critical to work with an experienced Chicago disability benefits lawyer when dealing with Social Security officials. Contact Pearson Disability Law, LLC, if you need help with a disability claim today.




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