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Can Social Security Deny Me Disability Benefits If I Smoke?

Posted on in Denied Social Security Benefits

cigarette smoking, nicotine, Cook County Social Security Disability AttorneyMany Americans remain addicted to nicotine despite the well-documented negative health effects of cigarette smoking. Smokers often suffer from heart and lung problems as a result of their addiction. But does the fact a person continues to smoke despite health problems render them automatically ineligible for benefits under Social Security Disability Insurance? Judges in Illinois have long said “no,” even though Social Security officials like to pretend otherwise.

SSA Not Allowed to “Play Doctor”

In a recent Illinois case, a federal magistrate ordered the Social Security Administration (SSA) to reconsider the disability claim of a 51-year-old woman who has been unable to work for the past eight years due to a number of serious medical issues, including chronic obstructive lung disease. As a result, she requires an external oxygen supply at least eight hours per day.

The applicant also smokes. Before the SSA, she testified about her addiction to nicotine for the past 30 years, which cause her to continue smoking a pack of cigarettes per day in spite of her pulmonary disease. This proved to be a sticking point for an SSA administrative law judge (ALJ), who found the applicant's testimony regarding her multiple disabilities “lacked credibility because she continued to smoke.” The ALJ also dismissed the expert testimony of several physicians who examined the applicant and confirmed her need for an external oxygen supply. As far as the ALJ was concerned, the applicant was not disabled because all she had to do was stop smoking.

But on appeal, the magistrate said the ALJ was not allowed to jump to that conclusion. Indeed, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees all disability cases in Illinois, expressly addressed this issue 30 years ago. At that time, the Court of Appeals held an ALJ could not simply “make his own determination regarding the prognosis of recovery” should an applicant stop smoking. An ALJ must cite sufficient “testimony and medical evidence in the record” connecting an applicant's smoking to the disabilities alleged.

In this case, the magistrate said the ALJ did not do that. Indeed, the applicant presented medical evidence suggesting her disabilities would not improve even if she stopped smoking. The magistrate also noted some of the woman's disabilities, such as her reliance on a cane, could be tied to other physical ailments. And while the magistrate was sympathetic to the SSA's underlying position the applicant's smoking was likely the major factor in her alleged disability, “neither the government nor the Court can play doctor.”

Get Help from a Social Security Attorney

The magistrate in the case above noted not all Social Security Disability applicants are “sympathetic, likeable or even entirely credible.” But the SSA's job is to follow the law and not impose their own value judgments on a disability applicant's addiction. That is why, if you or a loved one is unable to work due to serious medical problems, it is important to seek assistance from a qualified Chicago Social Security Disability attorney. Contact Pearson Disability Law, LLC, today if you would like to speak with someone right away.



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