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IL disability lawyerLast year, we discussed a case that was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court involving Social Security regulations for compensating lawyers who successfully pursue disability claims on behalf of their clients. On January 8, 2019, the Court issued its decision, which provided important clarification of the law in this area.

Justices: Caps for Agency, Court Representation Are Separate

To briefly review what this case, Culbertson v. Berryhill, was about: A Social Security attorney from Florida represented a woman who was seeking disability benefits. After going through the lengthy administrative review process, Social Security denied the woman's application. The woman then decided to challenge that decision by suing the Social Security Administration in federal court.

As part of the lawsuit, the woman signed a contingency-fee agreement with her attorney, which provided he would receive 25 percent of any past-due disability benefits she received if the court action proved successful. And in fact, the lawsuit did succeed. Social Security awarded past-due benefits and the agency withheld 25 percent of that amount to pay the attorney's fees.

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Illinois Social Security disability application lawyerOne of the cardinal rules of Social Security disability cases is that agency officials are not allowed to “play doctor.” In other words, when a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) holds a hearing to decide whether or not an applicant is legally disabled, the ALJ must rely on medical testimony presented by qualified experts. The ALJ is not supposed to rely solely on their own interpretation of medical evidence, since, after all, they are not doctors themselves.

Federal Court Orders New Disability Hearing After ALJ Ignores Medical Evidence

Here is a recent disability case in which Social Security forgot this basic rule. This is taken from a decision by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Illinois, although this particular case originated in Indiana. The plaintiff was a 49-year-old woman who formerly worked as a hairstylist. She stopped working in 2009 due to a variety of ailments, notably degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, and depression.

The degenerative disc disease–the plaintiff's chronic back pain–was the main focus of a hearing before a Social Security ALJ. At the hearing, the plaintiff's treating physician testified that her degenerative disc disease had progressed to the point where she qualifies as disabled under Social Security regulations. Although the doctor based his findings on examinations conducted during 2014, he nevertheless concluded that the plaintiff had been disabled since at least June 2011.

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Chicago, IL Social Security disability benefit claim lawyerOne of the keys to prevailing in a Social Security disability case is demonstrating how your physical or mental limitations make it impossible for you to hold down a job. For their part, Social Security officials are required to assess the applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which takes into account of all of the available medical evidence, including the applicant's own testimony regarding his or her limitations. While Social Security is not required to accept or give equal weight to all such evidence, the agency must provide a logical explanation supporting its ultimate conclusions.

Magistrate: Social Security Failed to Explain Reasons for Denying Claim

Far too often, Social Security fails in this basic task. For example, on September 17, 2018, a federal magistrate judge ordered Social Security to conduct a new hearing in the case of a disability applicant from Illinois. The applicant first applied for disability nearly five years ago. She claims she has been unable to work since 2008 due to “two generated or herniated discs and possible sciatica,” according to court records.

Following a hearing, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) held that the applicant did not qualify as legally disabled. The ALJ reached this conclusion after performing an RFC assessment that found that the applicant's physical limitations did not prevent her from working. After Social Security's internal appeals process upheld the ALJ's decision, the applicant sought judicial review.

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