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IL disability attorneyWhen reviewing Social Security disability applications, an administrative law judge (ALJ) needs to weigh the evidence offered by various medical experts. As a general rule, the ALJ should give more weight to the testimony offered by a doctor with respect to their own specialty as opposed to someone who is not. For example, if a disability applicant is unable to walk, you would credit the testimony of an orthopedic surgeon over, say, a dermatologist.

This might sound like just basic common sense. Yet there are many cases where ALJs will disregard the specialist's view in favor of a non-specialist's view–especially when the latter is willing to say the applicant's condition does not really qualify them for disability benefits. Such decision-making not only defies common sense, but it is also often in direct contravention of Social Security regulations.

Let's take this recent disability case from here in Illinois, Kathy P. v. Saul. The plaintiff in this case applied for Social Security disability benefits about five years ago. Although she suffers from a number of physical and mental impairments, the critical issue here involves her mental disorders and frequent migraines. In support of her claims, the plaintiff presented expert testimony from her treating psychiatrist. Based on her extensive treatment history, the psychiatrist told Social Security that the plaintiff “was unable to meet competitive standards for several abilities such as completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions, accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and dealing with normal work stress.”

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IL disability lawyerIn reviewing your application for disability benefits, Social Security will not just look at your medical record. It will also review many other aspects of your personal life, such as your ability to perform household tasks or even the vacations you have taken. In some cases, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) may even cite the fact you went on vacation as proof your testimony regarding your disability is not “credible.”

Magistrate: Vacations Do Not Disprove Disability Applicant's Testimony Regarding Her Panic Attacks

Federal courts, however, have cautioned Social Security not to simply assume an applicant is not credible simply because they were able to go on vacation. A recent decision from an Illinois federal magistrate judge, Lorena T. v. Saul, provides a case in point. The plaintiff here applied for disability benefits based on a number of mental impairments, including her frequent panic attacks. The ALJ ruled the plaintiff did not legally qualify for disability benefits, but the magistrate reversed that decision and ordered a new hearing.

As the magistrate noted, the ALJ expressed “skepticism towards [the plaintiff's] panic attack allegations throughout his opinion.” Among other reasons for this skepticism, the ALJ cited the fact the plaintiff went on two vacations, one to Florida and the other to New York and New Jersey. Both times the plaintiff said she suffered panic attacks, but the ALJ insisted this undercut her credibility. In particular, the ALJ did not understand why the plaintiff took her second vacation after allegedly suffering a panic attack during the Florida vacation.

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IL disability lawyerWhen applying for Social Security disability benefits, it is important to remember that the officials who will rule on your claim are not themselves doctors or medical experts. Social Security regulations require officials to carefully consider the medical evidence, as well as your own testimony regarding your symptoms, in making a decision. It is improper for Social Security to “play doctor” on its own accord or rule in a way that is not supported by the actual medical evidence presented.

Illinois Magistrate Orders New Hearing for Disability Applicant, Citing Multiple Legal Errors

Let's take this recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Matthew DS v. Saul. In this case, Social Security denied the disability application of a man (the plaintiff) who suffers from “inflammatory arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and obesity.” Following a hearing, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) determined these impairments did not qualify the plaintiff for the disability benefits.

The magistrate judge, however, found that several aspects of the ALJ's decision were not supported by the medical evidence. Among the problems cited by the magistrate:

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