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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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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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