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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 lawyerIn reviewing your application for disability benefits, Social Security will not just look at your medical record. It will also review many other aspects of your personal life, such as your ability to perform household tasks or even the vacations you have taken. In some cases, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) may even cite the fact you went on vacation as proof your testimony regarding your disability is not “credible.”

Magistrate: Vacations Do Not Disprove Disability Applicant's Testimony Regarding Her Panic Attacks

Federal courts, however, have cautioned Social Security not to simply assume an applicant is not credible simply because they were able to go on vacation. A recent decision from an Illinois federal magistrate judge, Lorena T. v. Saul, provides a case in point. The plaintiff here applied for disability benefits based on a number of mental impairments, including her frequent panic attacks. The ALJ ruled the plaintiff did not legally qualify for disability benefits, but the magistrate reversed that decision and ordered a new hearing.

As the magistrate noted, the ALJ expressed “skepticism towards [the plaintiff's] panic attack allegations throughout his opinion.” Among other reasons for this skepticism, the ALJ cited the fact the plaintiff went on two vacations, one to Florida and the other to New York and New Jersey. Both times the plaintiff said she suffered panic attacks, but the ALJ insisted this undercut her credibility. In particular, the ALJ did not understand why the plaintiff took her second vacation after allegedly suffering a panic attack during the Florida vacation.

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IL disability lawyerWhen applying for Social Security disability benefits, it is important to remember that the officials who will rule on your claim are not themselves doctors or medical experts. Social Security regulations require officials to carefully consider the medical evidence, as well as your own testimony regarding your symptoms, in making a decision. It is improper for Social Security to “play doctor” on its own accord or rule in a way that is not supported by the actual medical evidence presented.

Illinois Magistrate Orders New Hearing for Disability Applicant, Citing Multiple Legal Errors

Let's take this recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Matthew DS v. Saul. In this case, Social Security denied the disability application of a man (the plaintiff) who suffers from “inflammatory arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and obesity.” Following a hearing, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) determined these impairments did not qualify the plaintiff for the disability benefits.

The magistrate judge, however, found that several aspects of the ALJ's decision were not supported by the medical evidence. Among the problems cited by the magistrate:

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