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IL disability lawyerIn a recent post, we discussed a federal appeals court decision that chastised Social Security for its failure to properly consider the limits on a disability applicant's "concentration, persistence, and pace.” Such limitations are relevant when assessing an applicant's hypothetical ability to work in spite of their medical impairments. Yet Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) routinely downplay limitations on concentration, persistence, and pace when questioning vocational experts (VEs) at disability hearings.

Court: ALJ Failed to Ask the Right Question of Vocational Expert

And in fact, the same federal appeals court that handed down the decision we previously discussed had to remind Social Security of this yet again. On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit here in Chicago ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing after the ALJ failed to “properly address” the plaintiff's “limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace.”

The plaintiff in this particular case, DeCamp v. Berryhill, is a 55-year-old woman who applied for disability benefits, citing her brain tumor, neck and back pain, and bipolar disorder as impairments. At a 2015 hearing before an ALJ, the plaintiff testified that she suffered from frequent migraines–approximately four per week–and that she was limited in her daily activities due to chronic pain. As part of the hearing, the ALJ also posed a hypothetical question to a VE, which asked if an unskilled laborer who “may be off task or off pace up to 10 percent of the work day” outside of normal breaks could still find work in the national economy. The VE replied such work would be hypothetically available; however, if the applicant were “off pace or off task more than 15 percent of the day,” as opposed to 10 percent, then there would be “no competitive work available.”

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IL disability lawywerEven if you otherwise meet the legal definition of disabled, Social Security may still deny your claim for disability benefits if there is evidence that you can still perform your “past relevant work.” In some cases, Social Security makes this assessment by referencing the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. This is an outdated catalog previously published by the U.S. Department of Labor that purported to define approximately 13,000 different types of work available throughout the country.

Although the dictionary has not been updated since the 1990s, Social Security continues to rely on it in disability cases. Federal courts have tried to restrict the use of the dictionary. In fact, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over disability appeals from Illinois, has said that for “composite jobs”–i.e., a position that has “significant elements of two or more occupations”–Social Security may not rely on the dictionary at all.

Federal Court Holds Social Security Improperly Classified Disability Applicant's Prior Work

This issue came up in a recent Seventh Circuit decision, Ray v. Berryhill, in which the Court ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing for an applicant suffering from on a number of physical impairments. The plaintiff previously worked as a bus monitor. In that job, he needed to assist disabled children by lifting them into their seats, strapping down wheelchairs, and monitoring the children in general, according to court records.

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IL disability lawyerMany Illinois residents who apply for Social Security disability benefits find it impossible to focus on the types of daily tasks required by a normal workplace. Social Security's own regulations refer to a person's “concentration, persistence, and pace” to describe such difficulties. In general, if an applicant would be off-task at least 15 percent of the time due to concentration, persistence, and pace issues, that would tend to support a disability claim.

Federal Court Orders Social Security to Conduct New Disability Hearing

But this assumes Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) actually take concentration, persistence, and pace into account when evaluating a claim. This does not always happen, despite repeated warnings from federal courts that it is the law. Just recently, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago ordered Social Security to conduct a new disability hearing for a plaintiff precisely because the ALJ failed to properly account for these limitations.

The plaintiff in this case first applied for disability benefits more than eight years ago. In a 2013 examination conducted in connection with the plaintiff's application, a state agency psychiatrist determined the plaintiff suffered from major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Among other things, this disorder meant the plaintiff had “below average levels of mental control,” which affected his concentration, persistence, and pace.

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