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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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IL disability lawyerSocial Security often tries to justify a denial of disability benefits based on an applicant's purported ability to still perform basic household tasks. For example, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) may reason that since an applicant can still cook for themselves or clean their house despite having a crippling back injury, they must still be capable of working full-time.

Illinois judges have long cautioned Social Security against over-reliance on such “daily living” tasks to disprove disability claims. But there is also the problem of Social Security ignoring evidence regarding an applicant's inability to perform household activities to help prove their claims.

ALJ Failed to Consider Applicant's Difficulties with Daily Living

A recent decision from a federal judge here in Illinois offers a useful example of the latter problem. The plaintiff in this case first applied for disability benefits in 2014, alleging a number of mental impairments, including major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. After a hearing, a Social Security ALJ rejected the plaintiff's application, holding she could still perform certain jobs despite her limitations.

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IL disability lawyerSocial Security disability claims are supposed to be decided on the basis of medical evidence. But in far too many cases, Social Security administrative judges (ALJs) selectively ignore medical evidence that favors the applicant. While an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence in fine detail, it is not acceptable to disregard evidence simply because it might benefit the applicant's case.

Social Security ALJ Accuses Disability Applicant of “Cheating” Without Evidence

In an April 29 decision, Muriel EF v. Commissioner of Social Security, a federal magistrate judge from here in Illinois ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing for an applicant based on ALJ's disturbing “pattern” of cherry picking evidence. The plaintiff in this case is a woman in her 50s with a long history of medical impairments, including sciatica, spinal damage, and obesity.

In fact, the plaintiff's condition required her to undergo multiple spinal surgeries. Yet in denying the plaintiff's application for disability benefits, the ALJ “ignored” and “glossed over” this surgical history, as the magistrate put it. Indeed, the plaintiff “had two lumbar surgeries, which the ALJ also did not mention at all” in her decision. Another set of surgeries warranted nothing more than a mention in a single sentence. Similarly, the ALJ did not mention or discuss the results of a medical exam the plaintiff received–on her doctor's advice–after applying for disability benefits.

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