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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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IL disability lawyerWhen you apply for disability benefits, Social Security will consider the medical opinions of your treating physician as well as non-examining consultants. These consultants basically review your medical records and offer a separate opinion as to your physical or mental impairments. In some cases, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) may decide the non-examining doctors provide a more complete or accurate view of your condition than your own physician.

Magistrate Orders New Hearing on Deceased Man's Disability Claim

But what if a non-examining doctor reviews the exact same information as your treating physician and simply offers a different opinion? For instance, could a consultant look at the tests performed by your doctor and tell the ALJ they mean something different then what your doctor concluded?

A recent decision from an Illinois federal magistrate judge, Mary T. ex. rel. Falauren T. v. Saul, presented just such a scenario. This case sadly involves a now-deceased applicant for disability benefits. The applicant's mother actually continued the case following her son's death.

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IL disability lawyerIn looking at an application for disability benefits, Social Security officials must determine how your physical and mental impairments affect your ability to work in a practical sense. That is to say, if your doctors tell Social Security you can only work under certain medical restrictions, an administrative law judge (ALJ) must factor those limitations into a final evaluation of your “residual functional capacity” to work.

ALJ Failed to Consider Impact of Plaintiff's Need to Elevate His Leg Throughout the Day

Let's consider a recent disability case from here in Illinois where the ALJ failed to do this, at least in the view of a federal magistrate judge who ordered Social Security to reconsider its decision. The plaintiff in this case first applied for disability benefits more than five years ago. Although Social Security did find the plaintiff was disabled, it fixed the “onset date” of the disability in May 2014. The plaintiff alleged a much earlier onset date in September 2011.

Before the magistrate, the plaintiff argued the Social Security assigned to his case improperly evaluated several key pieces of evidence. Notably, the ALJ did not evaluate or weigh an opinion from the plaintiff's treating physician, who found that due to the plaintiff's impairments, he needed to “elevate his legs to heart level or above for 30 minutes, four times a day.”

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