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IL disability attorneyEven if you are unable to return to your previous job due to a medical condition, Social Security will not award you disability benefits unless it is satisfied that you are incapable of performing any type of meaningful work. The opinions of your treating physician are often critical towards proving this is the case. Of course, some Social Security administrative law judges may try to “play doctor” and attempt to disregard (or misrepresent) the views of your actual physicians.

Take this recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, T.D.B. v. Saul. The plaintiff in this case previously worked as a registered nurse. In 2007, she suffered a serious wrist injury when she was attacked by a patient. The plaintiff's physician subsequently diagnosed her with chronic regional pain syndrome (CRPS). By 2010, the physician concluded the plaintiff had “reached maximum medical improvement,” which is a legal term used in connection with workers' compensation proceedings. At the time, this meant the plaintiff would be limited to “full-time sedentary work.”

In 2012, however, the treating physician revised this diagnosis. In a separate letter to the workers' compensation insurance adjuster assigned to the plaintiff's claim, the doctor said the plaintiff was “essentially unemployable,” i.e., she was no longer medically capable of returning to work in any capacity on a full-time basis.

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IL disability lawyerAs a general rule, your own doctor knows your medical condition best. In the context of a Social Security disability benefits hearing, an administrative law judge (ALJ) is therefore required to give your doctor's views “controlling weight,” so long as the doctor's opinions are supported by the available medical evidence. If the ALJ chooses to discount or disregard your doctor's diagnosis, the ALJ must provide “good reasons” for that decision, which also must be supported by evidence.

Christopher C. v. Saul

What the ALJ may not do is misrepresent the evidence in order to discredit your doctor's testimony. Unfortunately, this happens more than Social Security would like to admit. Just recently, an Illinois federal magistrate judge ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing precisely because an ALJ failed to follow the rules in assessing a treating physician's views.

The plaintiff in this case, Christopher C. v. Saul, suffers from physical impairments related to his left ankle and obstructive pulmonary disease. The plaintiff's treating podiatrist said that as a result of the plaintiff's impairments, he would “need to elevate his leg just above hip level about 20 to 50 percent of an eight-hour workday due to edema, pain, and inflammation.” The plaintiff would also require a cane to stand and walk and could not lift more than 10 pounds. He was also incapable of stooping, bending, crouching, squatting, or climbing stairs or ladders.

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IL disability lawyerWhen a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) denies your application for disability benefits, they must give credible reasons for that denial. It is not enough for the ALJ to simply state you failed to provide enough evidence. The ALJ is required to provide sufficient reasons so that a reviewing court can later decide if those reasons were valid. An ALJ who fails to give such reasons, but instead offers nothing more than a lazy or “perfunctory” analysis of the applicant's case, is subject to summary reversal by a federal court.

Magistrate Chides ALJ for “Perfunctory” Analysis of Disability Claim

Here is an example of what we mean. This is taken from a recent decision by a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Jonie G. v. Saul. In this case, a plaintiff applied for disability benefits and appeared at a hearing before an ALJ in 2016. The ALJ ended up denying the plaintiff's application, which Social Security later upheld in its internal appeals process.

The main issue in the plaintiff's case was the impact of her type-2 diabetes on her ability to walk and sit. Before the ALJ, the plaintiff produced medical evidence from her treating podiatrist, who opined that the plaintiff “could not walk a single block without pain, required a cane, could not lift ten pounds, could not stand for more than thirty minutes, must keep her feet elevated for 90% of a workday, could not sit for more than four hours, [and] would be absent from work more than 25% of the time.” In short, the plaintiff was not capable of holding down a full-time job under these restrictions.

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