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IL disability lawyerIn a Social Security disability case, your own testimony regarding your symptoms will not be enough to secure an award of benefits. Your “subjective complaints,” as they are called in these cases, must be supported by medical evidence, such as a diagnosis from your treating physician. Absent such evidence, Social Security will deny your application.

Court Finds No Medical Evidence Disability Applicant Is Allergic to Electricity

A recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Atkins v. Saul, helps to illustrate the critical role that medical evidence plays in disability cases. The plaintiff in this case is an Indiana man who claimed he was disabled based on his “hypersensitivity to chemicals and electromagnetic fields.”

The plaintiff's family doctor conducted an examination. The doctor determined that while the plaintiff had a “very odd, flat affect”–i.e., diminished emotional expression–his results were otherwise normal. Later, this same doctor diagnosed the plaintiff with “acne and allergic rhinitis,” for which he prescribed medication. But the doctor explained that, contrary to the beliefs of the plaintiff and his family, he was not allergic to electricity and “all” chemicals.

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Chicago disability lawyerEven when the medical evidence shows a person suffers from multiple–even dozens–of physical or mental impairments, that may still not convince Social Security that a person is entitled to disability benefits. One reason for this is that Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) will frequently try to minimize or disregard a disability applicant's own description of their pain and other symptoms. Now, an ALJ is allowed to decide how much weight to give such subjective complaints. But the ALJ's findings must ultimately be rooted in the available medical evidence, not some “gut feeling.” That is to say, the ALJ must identify specific inconsistencies between the applicant's complaints and the rest of the evidentiary record.

Magistrate Rejects Social Security's Use of Disability Applicant's Pregnancy, Childcare Responsibilities as Pretext for Denying Benefits

Let's look at a recent Illinois disability case where the ALJ did not do this. In Sylvia C. v. Saul, a Social Security ALJ rejected a 41-year-old woman's application for benefits. There was no question the plaintiff had medical issues: The ALJ identified no fewer than 16 physical and mental impairments–included 9 “severe” conditions–based on the plaintiff's medical records. Nevertheless, the ALJ said the plaintiff did not meet the legal qualifications for disability.

A key reason was that the ALJ found the plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” On appeal, a federal magistrate judge disagreed. The magistrate said it was the ALJ's conclusions that were not adequately supported by the record. While the magistrate did not find the plaintiff was entitled to disability benefits, the court did order the ALJ to conduct a new hearing.

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IL disability lawyerMany people are forced to apply for disability benefits because they are unable to work due to chronic pain. Unfortunately, Social Security officials are often quick to dismiss such complaints, even when supported by medical evidence. Some administrative law judges (ALJ) seem to think that applicants are exaggerating or fabricating their complaints of pain. This often leads ALJs to selectively cherry-pick information that they think will support denying an application for benefits.

Seventh Circuit Orders New Disability Hearing After ALJ Disregards Key Medical Evidence

But at the end of the day, Social Security must follow the law. A recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Reinaas v. Saul, provides a cautionary example. This case involves a man (the plaintiff) in his mid-50s who lives on a small farm in Wisconsin. The plaintiff previously worked as a factory machine operator. While on the job, he seriously injures his spine and rotator cuff. Following multiple surgeries, he was able to return to work for a time but continued to experience headaches and significant pain in his neck and shoulder.

The physician who treated the plaintiff in connection with his workers' compensation claim eventually determined that the plaintiff could no longer work. The treating physician told Social Security that the plaintiff “had spinal disorders and nerve root compression that were presumptively disabling and that he suffered from two or more severe migraines per month despite prescribed treatment.” At a hearing, the plaintiff himself told the ALJ that his head movements were “limited” and that he suffered from migraines approximately 10 to 15 times per month.

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