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Chicago disability lawyerEven when the medical evidence shows a person suffers from multiple–even dozens–of physical or mental impairments, that may still not convince Social Security that a person is entitled to disability benefits. One reason for this is that Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) will frequently try to minimize or disregard a disability applicant's own description of their pain and other symptoms. Now, an ALJ is allowed to decide how much weight to give such subjective complaints. But the ALJ's findings must ultimately be rooted in the available medical evidence, not some “gut feeling.” That is to say, the ALJ must identify specific inconsistencies between the applicant's complaints and the rest of the evidentiary record.

Magistrate Rejects Social Security's Use of Disability Applicant's Pregnancy, Childcare Responsibilities as Pretext for Denying Benefits

Let's look at a recent Illinois disability case where the ALJ did not do this. In Sylvia C. v. Saul, a Social Security ALJ rejected a 41-year-old woman's application for benefits. There was no question the plaintiff had medical issues: The ALJ identified no fewer than 16 physical and mental impairments–included 9 “severe” conditions–based on the plaintiff's medical records. Nevertheless, the ALJ said the plaintiff did not meet the legal qualifications for disability.

A key reason was that the ALJ found the plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms [were] not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” On appeal, a federal magistrate judge disagreed. The magistrate said it was the ALJ's conclusions that were not adequately supported by the record. While the magistrate did not find the plaintiff was entitled to disability benefits, the court did order the ALJ to conduct a new hearing.

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IL disability attorneyA key part of any Social Security disability hearing occurs when an administrative law judge (ALJ) poses one or more “hypothetical questions” to a vocational expert. These questions are designed to help the ALJ determine what kind of jobs the applicant for disability benefits may still be able to perform in spite of their physical or mental impairments. The applicant has the right to cross-examine the VE regarding these hypothetical questions, as well as ask the ALJ to incorporate certain information when formulating the questions in the first place.

Seventh Circuit Rejects Disability Applicant's Appeal of Fourth Social Security Denial

But the mere fact an applicant disagrees with the ALJ's hypothetical question does not, in and of itself, mean the question was invalid. A recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Saunders v. Saul, offers a helpful illustration of this point.

In this case, a Wisconsin man applied for Social Security disability benefits in 2005. Over the intervening 14 years, there have been at least four separate hearings on the plaintiff's application, all of which ended with an ALJ ruling he did not qualify as legally disabled.

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IL disability lawyerMany Social Security disability applicants often get tripped up by the process. They may assume they qualify as “disabled” based on a prior doctor's diagnosis or state-agency decision. But Social Security has its own standards for assessing disability. And if you proceed without fully developing the record in support of your claim, you are likely to be denied benefits, even if your case has merit.

Appeals Court Upholds Social Security Decision Despite ALJ's Failure to Fully Develop the Record

A recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Elder v. Berryhill, helps illustrate the hurdles that disability applicants face. The plaintiff in this case applied for disability benefits in 2012, alleging he had been unable to work since 2010 due to a number of physical impairment.

The plaintiff presented his own case to an administrative law judge (ALJ) without the assistance of a qualified disability attorney. At the hearing, the plaintiff said the Illinois Department of Human Services “deemed him disabled and provided him with a home-care assistant.” The plaintiff further testified he suffered from “excessive pain” and required constant medication.

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