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IL disability attorneyA Social Security disability hearing is not a criminal trial. The role of the Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) is not to assess your honesty, character, or credibility as a person. The ALJ's responsibility is to assess the medical evidence presented and make a fact-based determination as to whether or not you meet the listed requirements for disability benefits.

Federal Court Criticizes Social Security ALJ for Relying “Too Heavily” on Judgments About Applicant's Character

Although Social Security's own regulations instruct ALJs to avoid making statements regarding a disability applicant's “overall character or truthfulness,” this principle is not always followed in practice. When that happens, a federal court may decide an unsuccessful applicant is entitled to a new hearing.

To give a recent example, in a June 2020 decision, Dawn K. v. Saul, an Illinois federal magistrate judge found an ALJ relied “too heavily on character-doubting inconsistencies” in denying the plaintiff's application for disability benefits. The plaintiff is a woman in her mid-40s who applied for disability more than four years ago based on a number of impairments, notably problems with her right arm.

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IL disability lawyerWhen a federal court determines Social Security has failed to properly weigh medical evidence in a disability case, the normal course of action is to remand–return–the case to the agency for a new hearing. But what happens when Social Security ignores the court's instructions? Indeed, what happens when the same disability case is brought to court multiple times?

Magistrate: ALJ Ignored Disability Applicant's Pain During Hearing

This scenario recently played out before an Illinois federal magistrate judge. This particular case, Kimberly M. v. Saul, involves a woman who has not worked in nearly 15 years. The plaintiff is in her mid-50s and stopped working in 2005 due to ongoing complications from a back injury. Despite surgery in 2016, the plaintiff continues to experience “significant pain in her spine, right hip, buttock and leg,” according to the magistrate's opinion.

Unfortunately, the plaintiff's difficulties with the disability insurance system have proved just as persistent as her back pain. By the time of the magistrate's order in April 2020, the plaintiff had been through three separate hearings at Social Security. Each time, an administrative law judge (ALJ) determined the plaintiff did not meet the legal requirements for disability benefits. And each time, the court found Social Security ignored key medical evidence.

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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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