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IL disability lawyerSocial Security disability cases are supposed to center on medical evidence, in particular, the diagnosis and expert views of the applicant's treating physicians. Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) are normally expected to give “controlling weight” to a treating physician's views. If the ALJ discounts or rejects this testimony, there are a number of regulatory factors that must be considered and explained.

Magistrate: ALJ Failed to Follow Agency Regulations Before Discounting Doctor's Evidence

But as we have often found in practice, ALJs often disregard treating-physician evidence without giving a valid explanation, or even any explanation at all that conforms to the agency's own regulatory factors. A recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Deborah AM v. Saul, offers a textbook example of this problem.

In this case, the plaintiff applied for disability benefits nearly five years ago. Following a hearing on the plaintiff's application, a Social Security ALJ held she did not legally qualify for disability benefits. The ALJ reached this conclusion after deciding not to give controlling weight to the evidence offered by the plaintiff's treating physician.

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IL disability lawyerMental disorders often pose unique challenges for individuals seeking Social Security disability benefits. It is not always easy to measure the impact of a mental impairment in the same way as a physical limitation. This is why Social Security regulations require agency officials to consider “any other relevant evidence” in addition to an applicant's medical records when assessing the severity of a mental impairment.

Federal Appeals Court Orders New Disability Hearing After Social Security Judge Ignores Evidence

Of course, Social Security has a habit of not always following its own regulations. A recent example of this came in a decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Dunn v. Saul. The plaintiff in this case held down a number of jobs through 2012, at which point he claimed he could no longer work due to his “memory loss.”

A Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) subsequently reviewed the plaintiff's application and determined his memory loss was not “severe” enough to justify an award of disability benefits. On appeal to the Seventh Circuit, the plaintiff argued the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The appeals court agreed with the plaintiff and returned the case to Social Security for a new hearing.

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IL disability lawyerIt is not unusual for Social Security to initially deny a disability claim. This is why there is a process in place to request an administrative hearing, and if necessary appeal a denial. However, there are some cases where Social Security makes repeated mistakes in its handling of a disability application, to the point where the applicant may need to pursue multiple rounds of appeals just to get a fair hearing.

Big Toe Presents Big Headache for Social Security, Federal Judges

One of the more extreme examples of this came in a recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Dolores R. v. Saul. In this case, the magistrate felt compelled to remand–i.e., return for a new hearing–a case back to Social Security for a third time, largely because the agency's administrative law judge (ALJ) failed to carry out the court's instructions following prior remands. And to put the timeline of this case into perspective, the plaintiff initially filed her application for disability benefits in August 2010–more than nine years ago.

An ALJ initially denied the plaintiff's application in 2012. In May 2014, a magistrate judge remanded the case for the first time. So the ALJ held a second hearing and again denied the plaintiff's application. In May 2017, a second magistrate judge remanded the case a second time. This led to the third and most-recent hearing before the ALJ, which again led to a finding the applicant did not legally qualify as disabled.

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