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IL disability lawyerTo receive Social Security disability benefits, you will not only need to show that your physical or mental conditions have caused you to be unable to work in jobs you have previously done, but you will also need to demonstrate that you are unable to find gainful employment in positions that are available in the United States economy. In many cases, Social Security disability claims are denied because a vocational expert (VE) testifies that a person should be able to work in certain jobs that fit their physical or mental limitations. However, these denials may be made based on an improper consideration of the complexity of the work a person is able to perform.

Magistrate Overrules Denial of Benefits Based on Limitations Regarding One-to-Two Step Tasks

One recent case in Illinois courts addressed work limitations and the improper denial of benefits. In the case of Michael S. v. Commissioner of Social Security, the plaintiff had applied for Social Security disability benefits based on cognitive impairments such as memory loss, attention deficit disorder, and depression. After disability benefits were denied, the plaintiff appealed this decision, and the court ruled in his favor and remanded the case to the Commissioner of Social Security for reconsideration. After considering new evidence, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) again denied benefits, and the plaintiff appealed this decision as well.

The key issue in this appeal involved the opinions of two state agency psychologists stating that the plaintiff should be limited to one-to-two step tasks while at work. Based on the testimony of a medical expert, the ALJ rejected this limitation and found that the plaintiff could perform light work while being limited to tasks that involved simple decision-making.

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IL disability attorneyWhen a person makes a Social Security disability claim, the decision about whether to award benefits will usually depend on the medical examinations they receive, as well as evaluations that are meant to determine whether they have the ability to work. In these cases, the opinions of a person’s regular doctor, who is known as a “treating source physician,” are given a great deal of weight. This is because a treating physician will have established a relationship with the patient that gives them a better understanding of their physical condition and their capabilities to perform work. However, in some cases, disability claims are improperly denied because Social Security does not properly consider the opinions of a treating source physician.

Appeals Court Vacates Denial of Benefits Based on Failure to Give Weight to Treating Physician’s Opinion

One recent case in Illinois demonstrates how Social Security may deny benefits without properly considering the opinions of a treating source physician. In Hargett v. Commissioner of Social Security, the United States Court of Appeals considered a situation in which an applicant had been denied benefits by an administrative law judge (ALJ), and this decision was upheld by a federal magistrate judge.

The plaintiff applied for disability benefits based on a number of impairments, including type 2 diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, curvature of the spine, and high blood pressure. He had been receiving treatment from his primary care physician, who referred him to a physical therapist for a functional capacity evaluation (FCE). This evaluation found that while he had the lifting capacity to perform “medium-strength” work, he was unable to stand for more than five minutes, could not walk for more than a tenth of a mile, could not balance well while walking or standing, and could not crouch or stoop. The primary care physician signed off on the results of this evaluation.

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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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