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IL disability attorneyWhen reviewing Social Security disability applications, an administrative law judge (ALJ) needs to weigh the evidence offered by various medical experts. As a general rule, the ALJ should give more weight to the testimony offered by a doctor with respect to their own specialty as opposed to someone who is not. For example, if a disability applicant is unable to walk, you would credit the testimony of an orthopedic surgeon over, say, a dermatologist.

This might sound like just basic common sense. Yet there are many cases where ALJs will disregard the specialist's view in favor of a non-specialist's view–especially when the latter is willing to say the applicant's condition does not really qualify them for disability benefits. Such decision-making not only defies common sense, but it is also often in direct contravention of Social Security regulations.

Let's take this recent disability case from here in Illinois, Kathy P. v. Saul. The plaintiff in this case applied for Social Security disability benefits about five years ago. Although she suffers from a number of physical and mental impairments, the critical issue here involves her mental disorders and frequent migraines. In support of her claims, the plaintiff presented expert testimony from her treating psychiatrist. Based on her extensive treatment history, the psychiatrist told Social Security that the plaintiff “was unable to meet competitive standards for several abilities such as completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions, accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and dealing with normal work stress.”

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IL disability attorneyA Social Security disability hearing is not a criminal trial. The role of the Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) is not to assess your honesty, character, or credibility as a person. The ALJ's responsibility is to assess the medical evidence presented and make a fact-based determination as to whether or not you meet the listed requirements for disability benefits.

Federal Court Criticizes Social Security ALJ for Relying “Too Heavily” on Judgments About Applicant's Character

Although Social Security's own regulations instruct ALJs to avoid making statements regarding a disability applicant's “overall character or truthfulness,” this principle is not always followed in practice. When that happens, a federal court may decide an unsuccessful applicant is entitled to a new hearing.

To give a recent example, in a June 2020 decision, Dawn K. v. Saul, an Illinois federal magistrate judge found an ALJ relied “too heavily on character-doubting inconsistencies” in denying the plaintiff's application for disability benefits. The plaintiff is a woman in her mid-40s who applied for disability more than four years ago based on a number of impairments, notably problems with her right arm.

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IL disability lawyerWhen a federal court determines Social Security has failed to properly weigh medical evidence in a disability case, the normal course of action is to remand–return–the case to the agency for a new hearing. But what happens when Social Security ignores the court's instructions? Indeed, what happens when the same disability case is brought to court multiple times?

Magistrate: ALJ Ignored Disability Applicant's Pain During Hearing

This scenario recently played out before an Illinois federal magistrate judge. This particular case, Kimberly M. v. Saul, involves a woman who has not worked in nearly 15 years. The plaintiff is in her mid-50s and stopped working in 2005 due to ongoing complications from a back injury. Despite surgery in 2016, the plaintiff continues to experience “significant pain in her spine, right hip, buttock and leg,” according to the magistrate's opinion.

Unfortunately, the plaintiff's difficulties with the disability insurance system have proved just as persistent as her back pain. By the time of the magistrate's order in April 2020, the plaintiff had been through three separate hearings at Social Security. Each time, an administrative law judge (ALJ) determined the plaintiff did not meet the legal requirements for disability benefits. And each time, the court found Social Security ignored key medical evidence.

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