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IL disability lawyerEarlier this year we discussed a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling that impacts the rights of individuals applying for Social Security disability benefits. In Biestek v. Berryhill, the Court said vocational experts (VEs) who testify in disability hearings are not categorically required to disclose the underlying data used in assessing the applicant's hypothetical job prospects. Nevertheless, the Court said an administrative law judge or reviewing court could look at a VEs refusal to disclose such data when assessing the overall credibility of their testimony.

Magistrate Finds ALJ "Failed to Respond" to Disability Applicant's Concerns Over Job Estimates

A more recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Jerry P. v. Saul, offers some guidance as to how lower courts are applying the Biestek decision. The plaintiff in this case applied for disability benefits in 2014. Following a 2016 hearing, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) rejected the plaintiff's application.

The ALJ relied heavily on the testimony of a VE, who said the plaintiff could still work as a "hand packer, assembler, or sorter" despite his impairments. The VE further stated such jobs "existed in significant numbers in the national economy" and offered specific estimates for each of the three occupations.

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IL disability lawyerThere are situations where Social Security may award disability benefits but fix a different onset date than alleged by the applicant. The alleged onset date is basically the day you became unable to work due to your physical or mental impairments. This date is important because, under Social Security regulations, a successful applicant can claim up to 12 months of retroactive benefits from the date of their application.

In other words, let's say Mary filed for disability benefits in January 2018 with an alleged onset date of June 2017. If Social Security subsequently grants the application and agrees with the onset date, Mary would be entitled to retroactive benefits starting in November 2017, or five months after the alleged onset date. (Social Security imposes a five-month waiting period for all disability benefits.)

Magistrate Finds Social Security's Reasons Unclear for Disagreeing with Plaintiff's Alleged Onset Date

If Social Security grants your application but disagrees with your alleged onset date, you can appeal the latter decision. Social Security must then show why it determined the applicant did not become legally disabled until a different date than alleged.

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IK diability attorneyA key step in the Social Security disability process is the determination of an applicant's “residual functional capacity” or RFC. The RFC is designed to account for an applicant's physical and mental limitations in assessing what type of work, if any, they are still able to perform. If Social Security fails to account for a particular limitation in performing an RFC, the agency needs to explain why.

Social Security Cannot Reject Disability Applicant's Testimony without Explanation

For example, if a disability applicant says he requires a cane to walk or get around, the RFC needs to account for this limitation. Alternatively, the Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) overseeing the case must explain why the applicant's testimony is inconsistent with the other evidence in the record–i.e., that the applicant does not medically require a cane. What the ALJ cannot do is simply ignore the testimony regarding the need for a cane without explanation.

In fact, an Illinois federal magistrate recently returned a disability case to Social Security precisely for this reason. The plaintiff in this case applied for disability benefits in 2014. An ALJ conducted a hearing in 2017. Following the hearing, the ALJ denied the plaintiff's application.

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