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IL disability lawyerA new rule that went into effect December 16, 2020, could make it harder for disabled individuals seeking to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. The rule changes the disability appeals process by allowing attorneys who work for the Social Security Administration to conduct hearings and make decisions on whether the claimant is eligible for benefits. Up until December, these hearings were always overseen by independent and impartial administrative law judges (ALJ).

Social Security Disability Benefits Process

It is important for anyone who is applying for Social Security disability to understand how complicated and drawn out this process often is and why it can be critical to have an experienced Chicago disability attorney advocating for you. There can be up to four steps in applying for benefits:

  • Initial application: Many people file their initial request for disability benefits either online or over the phone. It is rare that an applicant’s initial application is approved at this stage. If a claim is denied, the applicant can request a reconsideration.
  • Reconsideration: An applicant has 60 days from their date of denial to file a Request for Reconsideration. The Social Security Administration will again review the application. Sometimes, at this level, the agency will approve the applicant’s claim and they will begin receiving benefits. However, it is also very common for the agency to deny the claim again. If this occurs, the applicant can request a hearing.
  • Hearing: An applicant again has 60 days from the day their Request for Reconsideration was denied to file a Request for a Hearing. The hearing usually takes place at the applicant’s local Social Security Administration Office in front of an ALJ. It is highly recommended that the applicant has a qualified disability attorney who is experienced in defending denied Social Security disability benefits. Once the attorney presents all the evidence on behalf of the applicant, the ALJ will decide if the claim should be approved. If the ALJ denies the claim, the applicant can appeal the decision to the Appeals Council.
  • Appeals Council: These appeal hearings are decided by administrative appeal judges (AAJ). Unlike an ALJ, who is impartial and independent, an AAJ works directly for the Social Security Administration. The role of the AAJ is not to evaluate the applicant’s case, but only to determine if the ALJ made a technical error or did not consider any relevant medical information during the hearing.

New Policy

Under the new policy, those same AAJs will now be allowed to hear and decide hearings instead of or in addition to ALJs and this could have a detrimental impact on an applicant’s ability to obtain a fair and just hearing. In addition to requiring ALJs to be independent and impartial from the Social Security Administration, they also are required to have a minimum of seven years experience as a licensed and practicing attorney and have significant experience in trials and litigation.

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Illinois Social Security disability claim lawyerThere is a common misunderstanding with respect to disability insurance. When considering your application for disability benefits, Social Security does not just evaluate whether or not you are medically able to perform your past work. It must decide whether you are capable of performing any type of sustained work. This distinction is often used as reasoning to deny benefits to an applicant.

Judge Orders Social Security to Reconsider Disabled Truck Driver's Claim

An applicant's failure to completely understand the law, however, does not in and of itself justify denying disability benefits. This point was hit home by a recent decision from a federal judge here in Illinois. In this case, King v. Berryhill, the plaintiff previously worked as a truck driver. He stopped working in 2008 due to chronic back pain, for which he did not seek treatment until six years later. In 2014, the plaintiff's treating physician diagnosed him with “severe lumbar degeneration” and several related conditions. 

At a 2016 hearing before a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ), the plaintiff testified that he continued to suffer from chronic pain, and that therapy and ibuprofen provided only a modest amount of temporary relief. The ALJ nevertheless ruled that the plaintiff did not qualify as legally disabled.

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Chicago, IL Social Security disability benefit claim lawyerOne of the keys to prevailing in a Social Security disability case is demonstrating how your physical or mental limitations make it impossible for you to hold down a job. For their part, Social Security officials are required to assess the applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which takes into account of all of the available medical evidence, including the applicant's own testimony regarding his or her limitations. While Social Security is not required to accept or give equal weight to all such evidence, the agency must provide a logical explanation supporting its ultimate conclusions.

Magistrate: Social Security Failed to Explain Reasons for Denying Claim

Far too often, Social Security fails in this basic task. For example, on September 17, 2018, a federal magistrate judge ordered Social Security to conduct a new hearing in the case of a disability applicant from Illinois. The applicant first applied for disability nearly five years ago. She claims she has been unable to work since 2008 due to “two generated or herniated discs and possible sciatica,” according to court records.

Following a hearing, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) held that the applicant did not qualify as legally disabled. The ALJ reached this conclusion after performing an RFC assessment that found that the applicant's physical limitations did not prevent her from working. After Social Security's internal appeals process upheld the ALJ's decision, the applicant sought judicial review.

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