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IL disability lawyerAs we have discussed many times before, it often takes many years for a disability applicant to receive a final decision from Social Security. And in many of those cases, there may be several years of additional appeals following a denial of disability benefits. During this lengthy period, many disability applicants, unfortunately, pass away. Under the law, the applicant's spouse, children, or other beneficiaries may continue to pursue the disability claim.

Magistrate Rules Social Security Failed to Properly Justify Decision Denying Now-Deceased Woman Disability Benefits

Just recently, a federal judge here in Illinois ruled in favor of a widower who sought to reverse a Social Security decision denying his late wife's claim for disability benefits. The deceased injured her back in 2012 while working at a retail store. The injury was severe enough that she required surgery. But even then, she continued to suffer from chronic leg and back pain. This eventually led to her filing an application for disability benefits in 2014.

Following a 2016 hearing, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) determined the deceased was not legally disabled. Despite her impairments, the ALJ said she could still perform “light work with certain restrictions.” The applicant died in 2017, so her husband appealed the ALJ's decision on her behalf.

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Illinois social security disability lawyer proving medical impairmentOne of the basic responsibilities of Social Security when assessing a claim for disability benefits is to consider the effects of an applicant's medical impairments on their ability to work. Even if Social Security ultimately determines the effects do not rise to the level of a legally qualifying disability, the agency must still perform a proper assessment. In other words, Social Security cannot simply ignore a documented medical impairment altogether.

SSA Failed to Consider Effects of Disability Applicant's Edema

Consider this recent decision by a federal judge here in Illinois. The Social Security Administration denied a plaintiff's application for disability benefits. Before an administrative law judge (ALJ), the plaintiff presented medical evidence documenting the following impairments: HIV, obesity, edema, and lymphedema. The latter two refer to excess swelling in the plaintiff's left leg.

In fact, the plaintiff presented an extensive treatment history related to her edema. Basically, the condition requires her to “elevate her left leg throughout the day,” according to court records. Yet during the plaintiff's Social Security hearing, the ALJ never bothered to consider the impact of edema on the plaintiff's ability to work. 

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Chicago social security disability appeal lawyerSocial Security officials often try to discredit or discount the expert opinions of a disability applicant's treating physicians. In many cases, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ)–who is not a doctor–will attempt to substitute their own judgment for that of the medical professionals. Such actions are inconsistent with Social Security's own regulations and can lead to significant problems for the agency if a rejected applicant seeks judicial review in the courts. 

Federal Appeals Court Orders SSA to Reconsider Disability Applicant's Case

For example, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago recently ordered Social Security to conduct a new hearing in the case of a disability applicant who was previously denied benefits. The main problem identified by the appeals court was the ALJ's failure to properly explain her reasons for largely ignoring the medical testimony of the plaintiff's treating physicians. Although the Court did not rule that the plaintiff was legally disabled, it did hold that Social Security owed him a better explanation for denying his application.

Here is briefly what happened: the plaintiff is a former maintenance mechanic who is now in his mid-50s. He underwent two spinal surgeries in 2005 and 2006 but continues to suffer from chronic back pain. For this reason, he initially applied for Social Security disability benefits in 2012. At a subsequent hearing on the application before a Social Security ALJ, the plaintiff presented expert evidence from his primary care doctor and neurosurgeon, who both agreed that he was medically “unable to work” in his former job due to his ongoing back pain. The neurosurgeon further explained that the plaintiff was limited to “sedentary work.”

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