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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 lawyerAlthough Social Security disability insurance is a federal program, it relies on state agencies to evaluate claimants. In Illinois, the office of Disability Determination Services within the Department of Human Services will assign medical experts to review an applicant's medical history. The state reviewers' opinions are then submitted to a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ), who must consider the record as a whole before making a final decision as to whether the applicant meets the legal criteria to receive disability benefits.

Social Security Failed to Consider 400 Pages of Records in Illinois Man's Disability Case

The state agency reviewers can only do their job properly, however, when they actually have access to all of the relevant medical evidence. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. For example, an Illinois federal magistrate judge recently ordered Social Security to conduct a new hearing for a disability applicant after it came to light the state agency reviewers never considered 400 pages of medical records relevant to the case.

The plaintiff in this case, George K. v. Berryhill, suffers from a number of physical impairments. Initially, the plaintiff's problems revolved around his back, which he seriously injured at work in 2011. But starting in 2015, the plaintiff also began to suffer from seizures and other “seizure-like activity.”

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Illinois disability hearing attorney physician opinionIn Social Security disability cases, agency officials will look at two types of medical evidence: The information provided by an applicant’s own treating physicians, and testimony from outside reviewers and consultative examiners, who typically look at an applicant’s medical records but do not necessarily examine them in person. When one’s own doctor's medical opinions are supported by appropriate treatment records, Social Security is expected to afford such views substantial weight, even if they conflict with the opinions of the outside consultants.

Magistrate Orders New Hearing After Social Security Ignores Evidence from Applicant's Psychiatrist

In far too many disability cases, Social Security does not provide the proper weight to the opinions of an applicant’s own physician. A Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) will often credit the views of the outside experts–who often believe the applicant is not disabled–and ignore the contrary opinions of the treating physician. While this is not necessarily against regulations, the ALJ cannot simply ignore evidence.

Consider a recent decision by a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Sartin v. Berryhill. The plaintiff in this case is a woman who first applied for disability benefits nearly five years ago. At a hearing, the ALJ accepted evidence that the plaintiff suffered from a number of severe impairments, including depression, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nevertheless, the ALJ found these impairments “do not meet or medically equal” a legally recognized disability.

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