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b2ap3_thumbnail_medical-impairment.jpgIn a typical Social Security disability case, an administrative law judge (ALJ) will hear medical opinions from a number of different experts. In addition to the disability applicant's own treating physicians, the ALJ will also review the views of non-treating “consultants” who have examined the applicant's medical records. For disability cases filed before March 2017, the ALJ is normally required to give the treating physician's views “controlling” weight in the event of a conflict. That said, it is permissible to discount those opinions in favor of the non-treating consultants.

Magistrate: ALJ Cannot Rely Solely on Her “Lay Expertise” in Assessing Applicant's Mental Impairments

What the ALJ may not do, however, is ignore all of the medical evidence and “play doctor” themselves. The ALJ is a legal officer, not a medical professional. That means their job is to apply the law fairly and impartially.

But we often see ALJs step outside this legal role to make improper medical diagnoses. A recent disability case from here in Illinois, Christopher P. v. Saul, provides a useful illustration. The plaintiff here applied for disability benefits over five years ago. As part of the application process, the plaintiff's treating psychiatrist opined that he suffered from a number of mental impairments that included “marked limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace, and three episodes of decompensation, along with other disabling symptoms.”

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IL disability lawyerWhen a federal court determines Social Security has failed to properly weigh medical evidence in a disability case, the normal course of action is to remand–return–the case to the agency for a new hearing. But what happens when Social Security ignores the court's instructions? Indeed, what happens when the same disability case is brought to court multiple times?

Magistrate: ALJ Ignored Disability Applicant's Pain During Hearing

This scenario recently played out before an Illinois federal magistrate judge. This particular case, Kimberly M. v. Saul, involves a woman who has not worked in nearly 15 years. The plaintiff is in her mid-50s and stopped working in 2005 due to ongoing complications from a back injury. Despite surgery in 2016, the plaintiff continues to experience “significant pain in her spine, right hip, buttock and leg,” according to the magistrate's opinion.

Unfortunately, the plaintiff's difficulties with the disability insurance system have proved just as persistent as her back pain. By the time of the magistrate's order in April 2020, the plaintiff had been through three separate hearings at Social Security. Each time, an administrative law judge (ALJ) determined the plaintiff did not meet the legal requirements for disability benefits. And each time, the court found Social Security ignored key medical evidence.

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IL disability lawyerPsychiatric disorders often manifest themselves through inconsistent symptoms. That is to say, a person can feel “fine” one day yet be totally incapable of leaving the house the next. Such inconsistency often leads Social Security disability officials to incorrectly conclude an applicant's medical disorder is not “severe” enough to justify an award of benefits.

Court Orders New Hearing After Social Security Official Disregards Testimony from Multiple Psychiatrists

Take this recent Illinois disability case, Nicole D. v. Saul. The plaintiff in this case applied for disability benefits more than five years ago. She suffers from a number of psychiatric disorders, including major depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At a disability hearing, the plaintiff presented expert opinions from three of her treating physicians. The first doctor, a psychiatrist, explained the plaintiff's mental disorders were “severe enough to meet or equal” Social Security's disability requirements. The psychiatrist based her findings on her extensive treatment of the plaintiff, which encompassed approximately 40 consultations between 2014 and 2016.

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