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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 lawyerIn assessing disability claims, Social Security looks at whether or not you have an “impairment” that is considered “severe” enough to prevent you from working. A Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) is also expected to consider symptoms that, while not qualifying impairments in and of themselves, may exacerbate such an impairment. In particular, the ALJ needs to determine how your symptoms and impairments, taken as a whole, may restrict the type of work you are able to perform, if any.

Social Security Failed to Consider Leg Weakness in Assessing Illinois Woman's Disability Claim

To illustrate these principles in greater detail, here is a recent case, Ramona G. v. Saul, where the ALJ failed to properly consider an applicant's symptoms. The plaintiff, in this case, applies for disability benefits three years ago. The main issue raised in the plaintiff's application was her back impairment. In conjunction with this impairment, the plaintiff also presented medical evidence that she suffered from weakness in her right leg.

The ALJ determined that this leg weakness was not itself a “medically determinable impairment” under Social Security regulations. The ALJ went on to deny the plaintiff's application for disability benefits. In response, the plaintiff filed for judicial review with an Illinois federal magistrate judge.

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IL disability lawyerA hernia is not the type of impairment that, by itself, qualifies a person for Social Security disability benefits. Indeed, most hernias can be surgically repaired to relieve a person's symptoms. But when surgery is insufficient and the resulting pain and limitations prevent a person from working, then Social Security needs to consider the possibility that person is legally disabled.

Federal Court Rejects Social Security's Attempt to Ignore Treating Physician's Views of Disability Applicant's Condition

As is too often the case, however, Social Security may try and discount the expert opinions of doctors who actually treated an applicant's hernia in an attempt to find the applicant not disabled. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago recently addressed such a case, finding Social Security's decision to reject a disability application was not supported by the evidence.

The plaintiff in this case, Burgos v. Saul, was previously employed as a warehouse worker. Fourteen years ago, the plaintiff underwent the first in a series of surgeries intended to treat his multiple hernias as well as a kidney ailment. Despite these surgeries, the plaintiff's hernias led to increased abdominal pain. Eventually, the plaintiff found himself unable to work and applied for disability benefits in 2014.

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