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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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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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