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IL disability lawyerIn assessing disability claims, Social Security looks at whether or not you have an “impairment” that is considered “severe” enough to prevent you from working. A Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) is also expected to consider symptoms that, while not qualifying impairments in and of themselves, may exacerbate such an impairment. In particular, the ALJ needs to determine how your symptoms and impairments, taken as a whole, may restrict the type of work you are able to perform, if any.

Social Security Failed to Consider Leg Weakness in Assessing Illinois Woman's Disability Claim

To illustrate these principles in greater detail, here is a recent case, Ramona G. v. Saul, where the ALJ failed to properly consider an applicant's symptoms. The plaintiff, in this case, applies for disability benefits three years ago. The main issue raised in the plaintiff's application was her back impairment. In conjunction with this impairment, the plaintiff also presented medical evidence that she suffered from weakness in her right leg.

The ALJ determined that this leg weakness was not itself a “medically determinable impairment” under Social Security regulations. The ALJ went on to deny the plaintiff's application for disability benefits. In response, the plaintiff filed for judicial review with an Illinois federal magistrate judge.

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IL disability lawyerYou would think in assessing an application for disability benefits, Social Security would give greater weight to the opinions of a specialist who actually treated the applicant over rather than a less-qualified doctor who only performed a casual examination. But the reality is Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) often prefer whatever testimony supports a finding the applicant is not disabled.

Magistrate Orders New Hearing After ALJ Credits Opinions of Family Doctor Over Orthopedic Surgeon

A recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Cheryl G. v. Saul, helps to illustrate this problem. The plaintiff in this case previously worked as a legal secretary and school bus driver. But she has been unable to work in any capacity since 2010 as the result of a severe ankle injury that required multiple surgeries.

In fact, the plaintiff has had surgeries performed on her since 2010. One of the plaintiff's surgeons testified about her job prospects during a deposition in connection with the plaintiff's efforts to obtain workers' compensation benefits. In this deposition, the surgeon said the plaintiff "could have probably done some kind of sedentary duty if such an occupation existed in a bus driving facility." But she was unable to drive and would require "substantial breaks or half days to allow her to function." And due to the nature of the plaintiff's injuries, the surgeon said she could not sit for prolonged periods of time.

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IL disability lawyerIn a recent post, we discussed a federal appeals court decision that chastised Social Security for its failure to properly consider the limits on a disability applicant's "concentration, persistence, and pace.” Such limitations are relevant when assessing an applicant's hypothetical ability to work in spite of their medical impairments. Yet Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) routinely downplay limitations on concentration, persistence, and pace when questioning vocational experts (VEs) at disability hearings.

Court: ALJ Failed to Ask the Right Question of Vocational Expert

And in fact, the same federal appeals court that handed down the decision we previously discussed had to remind Social Security of this yet again. On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit here in Chicago ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing after the ALJ failed to “properly address” the plaintiff's “limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace.”

The plaintiff in this particular case, DeCamp v. Berryhill, is a 55-year-old woman who applied for disability benefits, citing her brain tumor, neck and back pain, and bipolar disorder as impairments. At a 2015 hearing before an ALJ, the plaintiff testified that she suffered from frequent migraines–approximately four per week–and that she was limited in her daily activities due to chronic pain. As part of the hearing, the ALJ also posed a hypothetical question to a VE, which asked if an unskilled laborer who “may be off task or off pace up to 10 percent of the work day” outside of normal breaks could still find work in the national economy. The VE replied such work would be hypothetically available; however, if the applicant were “off pace or off task more than 15 percent of the day,” as opposed to 10 percent, then there would be “no competitive work available.”

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