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IL disability attorneySocial Security disability decisions are supposed to be based on medical evidence, such as the findings of your treating physician. When there is a conflict in the medical evidence–i.e., different doctors reach different diagnoses–a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) is entitled to decide which evidence is more credible and consistent with the overall record. However, the ALJ cannot simply ignore uncontradicted medical evidence and substitute his or her own non-medical judgment.

Magistrate Rejects ALJ's Finding That Disabled Applicant Could Use Both of His Hands

When ALJs overstep their boundaries, a disability applicant may have recourse on appeal to a federal court if their claim for disability benefits was ultimately denied. Here is a recent example from here in Illinois. In this case, Andrew B. v. Berryhill, a former bus driver (the plaintiff) applied for disability benefits in 2014, citing a variety of impairments, including carpal tunnel syndrome, torn ligaments in his hands, and arthritis.

For purposes of the plaintiff's disability application, the critical time period was between November 2014 and January 2016. According to the expert opinion of the only doctor to examine the plaintiff during this period, the plaintiff “could only occasionally handle objects with both hands.” That is to say, the plaintiff could not “frequently” handle objects with his right hand due to his medical condition.

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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 This is an outdated catalog previously published by the U.S. Department of Labor that purported to define approximately 13,000 different types of work available throughout the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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