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Il disability lawyerIn determining eligibility for disability insurance benefits, Social Security must first determine your “residual functional capacity” or RFC. This is an assessment of your ability to work, taking into account any documented physical or mental impairments that you have. By law, Social Security must take all of your limitations into account when formulating an RFC.

Magistrate: Social Security Acknowledged Disability Applicant's Severe Headaches, Yet Did Not Account for Them in RFC

That does not, however, mean that Social Security officials always follow the law. A recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Charlene J. v. Saul, provides a case in point. This case actually involves a plaintiff who filed for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. SSI is a type of benefit available to low-income individuals who do not enough of a work history to qualify for disability insurance (SSDI). That said, Social Security uses the same RFC standards when assessing SSI and SSDI claims, so the issues discussed here also apply to disability cases.

Here, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) determined the plaintiff suffered from a number of impairments, including the loss of vision in one eye, type-2 diabetes, and chronic headaches. The ALJ then found that despite these conditions, the plaintiff had the RFC to perform a “full range of medium work” with certain limits. Based on this RFC, the ALJ said the plaintiff could still perform her prior job as a cashier and denied her application for benefits.

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IL disability lawyerMany people are forced to apply for disability benefits because they are unable to work due to chronic pain. Unfortunately, Social Security officials are often quick to dismiss such complaints, even when supported by medical evidence. Some administrative law judges (ALJ) seem to think that applicants are exaggerating or fabricating their complaints of pain. This often leads ALJs to selectively cherry-pick information that they think will support denying an application for benefits.

Seventh Circuit Orders New Disability Hearing After ALJ Disregards Key Medical Evidence

But at the end of the day, Social Security must follow the law. A recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Reinaas v. Saul, provides a cautionary example. This case involves a man (the plaintiff) in his mid-50s who lives on a small farm in Wisconsin. The plaintiff previously worked as a factory machine operator. While on the job, he seriously injures his spine and rotator cuff. Following multiple surgeries, he was able to return to work for a time but continued to experience headaches and significant pain in his neck and shoulder.

The physician who treated the plaintiff in connection with his workers' compensation claim eventually determined that the plaintiff could no longer work. The treating physician told Social Security that the plaintiff “had spinal disorders and nerve root compression that were presumptively disabling and that he suffered from two or more severe migraines per month despite prescribed treatment.” At a hearing, the plaintiff himself told the ALJ that his head movements were “limited” and that he suffered from migraines approximately 10 to 15 times per month.

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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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