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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 This is an outdated catalog previously published by the U.S. Department of Labor that purported to define approximately 13,000 different types of work available throughout the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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IL disability lawyerA key part of the disability application benefits process is when Social Security asks a vocational expert to answer a “hypothetical” question designed to ascertain what potential jobs, if any, exist in the marketplace for a person with certain physical or mental limitations. Remember, it is not enough to prove you have a disability. Social Security also needs to figure out whether your disability–or a combination of disabilities–makes it impossible for you to find meaningful work. The hypothetical question is supposed to help determine the answer.

Seventh Circuit Orders New Hearing for Disability Applicant

But this assumes Social Security asks the right hypothetical question, to begin with. For example, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago recently ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing for a plaintiff after determining an administrative law judge (ALJ) asked an “incomplete” hypothetical question. This error alone was sufficient, the court said, to justify reconsideration of the plaintiff's application for disability benefits.

The plaintiff applied for disability, citing a number of impairments, including depression, attention deficit disorder, fibromyalgia, and degenerative disc disease. Much of the plaintiff's impairments stemmed from a 2007 slip-and-fall accident. Following this accident, the Seventh Circuit noted, the plaintiff could “no longer live the active life she had before her fall.” Even seven years after the fall, the plaintiff could not sit or stand for more than 30 minutes at any one time. By that point, she had already filed an application for Social Security disability insurance benefits.

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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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