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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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IL disability lawyerIt is a well-established rule in Social Security disability cases that the agency's administrative law judges (ALJs) are not allowed to “play doctor.” That is to say, the ALJ is a layperson, not a doctor or a medical expert. Therefore, when assessing an applicant's disability claim, the ALJ must rely on testimony or evidence offered by such experts rather than trying to diagnosis the claimant themselves.

Court Cites ALJ's Failure to Call Medical Expert in Ordering New Disability Hearing

Unfortunately, this rule is not always so easy to implement in practice. As an Illinois federal magistrate judge observed in a recent disability case, Michelle M. v. Saul, it is often difficult to distinguish “playing doctor” from “merely noting or summarizing the evidence.” Indeed, the magistrate observed that “there do not appear to be many clear rules to determine when the doctor-playing line is crossed.”

This particular case illustrated the problem. The plaintiff here applied for disability benefits alleging a number of physical impairments, including chronic pain in her back, hands, and feet. But as the magistrate explained, the plaintiff's treating physicians have been able to make a “single consistent diagnosis” to explain the cause of her problems. Additionally, the plaintiff received significant treatment after her disability hearing before the ALJ, and as a result, there were “200 pages of treatment records” submitted after the hearing.

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IL disability lawyerThe Social Security disability application process often puts individuals in a bind. On the one hand, the law requires proof they are unable to hold down even a “sedentary” position. On the other hand, many applicants feel they need to at least apply for work, if for no other reason than to have some source of income while waiting to hear back from Social Security.

But will apply for a job–or even multiple jobs–doom your disability benefits application? The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees disability cases here in Illinois, has said in the past that a “job search” by itself does not discredit an applicant's disability claim. In many cases, looking for work may simply reflect a strong internal work ethic or an “overly optimistic outlook” about one's job prospects. But in other cases, Social Security or a court may consider job applications as part of the overall evidence supporting or undermining an individual's claims.

Social Security Denies Disability After ALJ Suggests Applicant “Lost His Motivation to Work”

A recent example of the latter is Primm v. Saul, a recent Seventh Circuit decision where the Court affirmed Social Security's decision to reject a disability claim. The plaintiff in this case applied for disability benefits, alleging he was unable to work from 2006 through 2014 due to a variety of impairments. A Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) determined that despite the plaintiff's ailments, he was still capable of performing “sedentary work” during the relevant period and was therefore not legally disabled.

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