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The Difference Between “Impairments” and “Symptoms” in Disability Cases

Posted on in Social Security Disability Medical Conditions

IL disability lawyerIn assessing disability claims, Social Security looks at whether or not you have an “impairment” that is considered “severe” enough to prevent you from working. A Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) is also expected to consider symptoms that, while not qualifying impairments in and of themselves, may exacerbate such an impairment. In particular, the ALJ needs to determine how your symptoms and impairments, taken as a whole, may restrict the type of work you are able to perform, if any.

Social Security Failed to Consider Leg Weakness in Assessing Illinois Woman's Disability Claim

To illustrate these principles in greater detail, here is a recent case, Ramona G. v. Saul, where the ALJ failed to properly consider an applicant's symptoms. The plaintiff, in this case, applies for disability benefits three years ago. The main issue raised in the plaintiff's application was her back impairment. In conjunction with this impairment, the plaintiff also presented medical evidence that she suffered from weakness in her right leg.

The ALJ determined that this leg weakness was not itself a “medically determinable impairment” under Social Security regulations. The ALJ went on to deny the plaintiff's application for disability benefits. In response, the plaintiff filed for judicial review with an Illinois federal magistrate judge.

Before the magistrate, the plaintiff did not challenge the ALJ's finding that the leg weakness was not an impairment. Instead, she argued that the ALJ failed to properly consider this “symptom” in formulating her “residual functional capacity” (RFC). The RFC reflects the ALJ's assessment of a disability applicant's ability to work, taking into account all qualifying impairments and symptoms.

The magistrate agreed with the plaintiff that the ALJ should have considered the leg weakness in formulating the RFC. The ALJ explained there was “some evidence” to support the plaintiff's symptoms, specifically a treatment note from her physical therapist. While the ALJ was not required to take this evidence at face value, at a minimum, she had to explain “why she failed to do so,” the magistrate said.

Conversely, if the ALJ had decided the evidence regarding the plaintiff's leg weakness was credible, that in turn could have altered the final RFC determination. For example, the magistrate suggested that taking the leg weakness into account, the ALJ might have determined the plaintiff “was only capable of performing sedentary work,” i.e., jobs that did not require extensive standing or walking. Given the plaintiff's age–she is in her mid-50s–such a limitation would qualify her for disability benefits. The magistrate, therefore, returned the case to Social Security for a new hearing.

Contact a Cook County Social Security Lawyer Today

Seemingly small mistakes in assessing a disability applicant's RFC can have significant effects on the outcome of their case. This is why it is important to work with an experienced Chicago disability benefits attorney who can help you in making sure Social Security follows its own regulations. Contact Pearson Disability Law, LLC, at 312-999-0999 today to schedule a free consultation with a disability attorney today.




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