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b2ap3_thumbnail_medical-impairment.jpgIn a typical Social Security disability case, an administrative law judge (ALJ) will hear medical opinions from a number of different experts. In addition to the disability applicant's own treating physicians, the ALJ will also review the views of non-treating “consultants” who have examined the applicant's medical records. For disability cases filed before March 2017, the ALJ is normally required to give the treating physician's views “controlling” weight in the event of a conflict. That said, it is permissible to discount those opinions in favor of the non-treating consultants.

Magistrate: ALJ Cannot Rely Solely on Her “Lay Expertise” in Assessing Applicant's Mental Impairments

What the ALJ may not do, however, is ignore all of the medical evidence and “play doctor” themselves. The ALJ is a legal officer, not a medical professional. That means their job is to apply the law fairly and impartially.

But we often see ALJs step outside this legal role to make improper medical diagnoses. A recent disability case from here in Illinois, Christopher P. v. Saul, provides a useful illustration. The plaintiff here applied for disability benefits over five years ago. As part of the application process, the plaintiff's treating psychiatrist opined that he suffered from a number of mental impairments that included “marked limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace, and three episodes of decompensation, along with other disabling symptoms.”

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Illinois social security disability lawyer proving medical impairmentOne of the basic responsibilities of Social Security when assessing a claim for disability benefits is to consider the effects of an applicant's medical impairments on their ability to work. Even if Social Security ultimately determines the effects do not rise to the level of a legally qualifying disability, the agency must still perform a proper assessment. In other words, Social Security cannot simply ignore a documented medical impairment altogether.

SSA Failed to Consider Effects of Disability Applicant's Edema

Consider this recent decision by a federal judge here in Illinois. The Social Security Administration denied a plaintiff's application for disability benefits. Before an administrative law judge (ALJ), the plaintiff presented medical evidence documenting the following impairments: HIV, obesity, edema, and lymphedema. The latter two refer to excess swelling in the plaintiff's left leg.

In fact, the plaintiff presented an extensive treatment history related to her edema. Basically, the condition requires her to “elevate her left leg throughout the day,” according to court records. Yet during the plaintiff's Social Security hearing, the ALJ never bothered to consider the impact of edema on the plaintiff's ability to work. 

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disability hearing, Social Security Disability Insurance, medical impairments, disability applicants, Chicago Social Security attorneyObtaining Social Security disability benefits is not simply a matter of proving you suffer from a physical or mental impairment. The Social Security Administration must also consider whether there are “suitable jobs” that you could theoretically perform in spite of your impairments, and whether such jobs “exist in significant numbers.” Here, the burden is on Social Security—not you as the applicant—to prove this is the case.

Woman Recovering from Brain Surgery Entitled to New Hearing

How you do quantify the amount of “suitable jobs” available? Social Security typically relies on the testimony of vocational experts (VEs) to estimate the number of jobs that might be available. Unfortunately, many VEs fail to properly explain their methodology, which makes their “expert” opinions little more than guesswork. A number of federal courts—including the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago—have expressed frustration.

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