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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 lawyerIn a Social Security disability case, your own testimony regarding your symptoms will not be enough to secure an award of benefits. Your “subjective complaints,” as they are called in these cases, must be supported by medical evidence, such as a diagnosis from your treating physician. Absent such evidence, Social Security will deny your application.

Court Finds No Medical Evidence Disability Applicant Is Allergic to Electricity

A recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Atkins v. Saul, helps to illustrate the critical role that medical evidence plays in disability cases. The plaintiff in this case is an Indiana man who claimed he was disabled based on his “hypersensitivity to chemicals and electromagnetic fields.”

The plaintiff's family doctor conducted an examination. The doctor determined that while the plaintiff had a “very odd, flat affect”–i.e., diminished emotional expression–his results were otherwise normal. Later, this same doctor diagnosed the plaintiff with “acne and allergic rhinitis,” for which he prescribed medication. But the doctor explained that, contrary to the beliefs of the plaintiff and his family, he was not allergic to electricity and “all” chemicals.

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Chicago disability lawyerEven when the medical evidence shows a person suffers from multiple–even dozens–of physical or mental impairments, that may still not convince Social Security that a person is entitled to disability benefits. One reason for this is that Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) will frequently try to minimize or disregard a disability applicant's own description of their pain and other symptoms. Now, an ALJ is allowed to decide how much weight to give such subjective complaints. But the ALJ's findings must ultimately be rooted in the available medical evidence, not some “gut feeling.” That is to say, the ALJ must identify specific inconsistencies between the applicant's complaints and the rest of the evidentiary record.

Magistrate Rejects Social Security's Use of Disability Applicant's Pregnancy, Childcare Responsibilities as Pretext for Denying Benefits

Let's look at a recent Illinois disability case where the ALJ did not do this. In Sylvia C. v. Saul, a Social Security ALJ rejected a 41-year-old woman's application for benefits. There was no question the plaintiff had medical issues: The ALJ identified no fewer than 16 physical and mental impairments–included 9 “severe” conditions–based on the plaintiff's medical records. Nevertheless, the ALJ said the plaintiff did not meet the legal qualifications for disability.

A key reason was that the ALJ found the plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” On appeal, a federal magistrate judge disagreed. The magistrate said it was the ALJ's conclusions that were not adequately supported by the record. While the magistrate did not find the plaintiff was entitled to disability benefits, the court did order the ALJ to conduct a new hearing.

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