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IL disability attorneySocial Security disability decisions are supposed to be based on medical evidence, such as the findings of your treating physician. When there is a conflict in the medical evidence–i.e., different doctors reach different diagnoses–a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) is entitled to decide which evidence is more credible and consistent with the overall record. However, the ALJ cannot simply ignore uncontradicted medical evidence and substitute his or her own non-medical judgment.

Magistrate Rejects ALJ's Finding That Disabled Applicant Could Use Both of His Hands

When ALJs overstep their boundaries, a disability applicant may have recourse on appeal to a federal court if their claim for disability benefits was ultimately denied. Here is a recent example from here in Illinois. In this case, Andrew B. v. Berryhill, a former bus driver (the plaintiff) applied for disability benefits in 2014, citing a variety of impairments, including carpal tunnel syndrome, torn ligaments in his hands, and arthritis.

For purposes of the plaintiff's disability application, the critical time period was between November 2014 and January 2016. According to the expert opinion of the only doctor to examine the plaintiff during this period, the plaintiff “could only occasionally handle objects with both hands.” That is to say, the plaintiff could not “frequently” handle objects with his right hand due to his medical condition.

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IL disability lawyerA key component of a Social Security disability hearing is the testimony of a “vocational expert” or VE. The VE's function is to assess the type and quantity of jobs available to a “hypothetical” person with the same physical and mental impairment as the disability applicant. Unfortunately, many VEs are not forthcoming with how they arrive at their conclusions. That is to say, the VE does not provide either the applicant or the Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) with the actual data relied upon.

Kagan: Court Rejects “Categorical” Rule Requiring Disclosure of “Private” Data

The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has intermediate appellate jurisdiction over disability cases in Illinois, has long held that Social Security cannot rely on the testimony of a VE who refuses to produce their methodology upon the applicant's request. But on April 1, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected such a “categorical” rule and said that going forward, appellate courts would have to decide on a “case-by-case basis” whether a refusal to produce data is unreasonable, with appellate court deferring to the judgment of Social Security ALJs.

The case before the Supreme Court, Biestek v. Berryhill, actually originated in Michigan. The petitioner worked as a carpenter and general construction laborer. He later applied for Social Security disability benefits, citing a number of physical and mental impairments. At a hearing before the Social Security ALJ, a VE testified that based on her data, the petitioner could still perform “sedentary jobs” such as a “bench assembler or sorter,” and that there were 240,000 such positions available nationally for the former and 120,000 for the latter.

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IL disability lawywerEven if you otherwise meet the legal definition of disabled, Social Security may still deny your claim for disability benefits if there is evidence that you can still perform your “past relevant work.” In some cases, Social Security makes this assessment by referencing the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. This is an outdated catalog previously published by the U.S. Department of Labor that purported to define approximately 13,000 different types of work available throughout the country.

Although the dictionary has not been updated since the 1990s, Social Security continues to rely on it in disability cases. Federal courts have tried to restrict the use of the dictionary. In fact, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over disability appeals from Illinois, has said that for “composite jobs”–i.e., a position that has “significant elements of two or more occupations”–Social Security may not rely on the dictionary at all.

Federal Court Holds Social Security Improperly Classified Disability Applicant's Prior Work

This issue came up in a recent Seventh Circuit decision, Ray v. Berryhill, in which the Court ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing for an applicant suffering from on a number of physical impairments. The plaintiff previously worked as a bus monitor. In that job, he needed to assist disabled children by lifting them into their seats, strapping down wheelchairs, and monitoring the children in general, according to court records.

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