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Chicago social security benefits lawyer vocational expertOne of the messiest aspects of the Social Security disability benefits process is dealing with the vocational experts (VEs) retained by the government to decide whether or not an applicant is still capable of working in spite of their physical or mental impairments. Despite the fact that they are referred to as “experts,” in many cases, these individuals are simply pulling numbers out of thin air. Ideally, a VE is supposed to provide reliable estimates of the types of work–and number of jobs available–that a hypothetical applicant could perform. However, in practice, a VE is often forced to rely on outdated methodology that provides little in the way of useful evidence.

Magistrate: Social Security Failed to Press VE on Source of Job Estimates

Unfortunately, the flawed methodology used by VEs does not stop Social Security from relying on such evidence. Consider a recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois. In this case, the plaintiff applied for disability benefits eight years ago. At a 2016 hearing, a VE testified regarding the plaintiff's past work and hypothetical job prospects given his disability. The VE explained that the plaintiff previously worked as a “combination photographer and retail store manager.”

The administrative law judge (ALJ) conducting the hearing then posed a hypothetical question to the VE, which is standard practice in disability cases. The ALJ wanted the VE to estimate the jobs available to the plaintiff given his “age, education, and work experience,” and assuming he was currently limited to nothing more than “sedentary work.” The VE said the plaintiff could work as an “assembler,” a job function identified in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), a 1992 document still used by Social Security to define the parameters of certain vocations. 

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Chicago social security benefits attorney alcohol abuseMany Illinois residents suffer from alcohol or drug addiction. Such conditions can substantially impair a person's ability to maintain gainful employment. Unfortunately, Social Security tends to treat addiction as a moral failing rather than a medical condition. According to federal regulations, drug and alcohol addiction are not impairments that qualify an individual for disability benefits. In fact, Social Security may reject an applicant with other impairments if it determines that drug addiction or alcoholism is a “contributing material factor” towards their disability. 

Court Holds Applicant Not Legally Disabled, Regardless of Alcoholism

In plain English, if Social Security thinks you would be fine to work if you stopped drinking, it will find that you are not legally disabled. The burden of proof is on you, as the applicant, to prove that alcoholism is not material to your disability. This is in addition to the burden all applicants must meet to prove they have a disability in the first place.

A recent decision by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Barrett v. Berryhill, offers a helpful illustration. This case involved a disability applicant who suffered from bipolar disorder and alcoholism. According to the applicant, he “started drinking as a teenager,” and by the age of 27, he was “drinking one to two six-packs a day, for five days per week.” After the applicant stopped working in 2009, his condition worsened. Eventually, he was formally diagnosed with alcohol dependence. In 2011, the applicant entered a 13-month recovery program, which he successfully completed in January 2013.

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Chicago, IL Social Security disability benefit claim lawyerOne of the keys to prevailing in a Social Security disability case is demonstrating how your physical or mental limitations make it impossible for you to hold down a job. For their part, Social Security officials are required to assess the applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which takes into account of all of the available medical evidence, including the applicant's own testimony regarding his or her limitations. While Social Security is not required to accept or give equal weight to all such evidence, the agency must provide a logical explanation supporting its ultimate conclusions.

Magistrate: Social Security Failed to Explain Reasons for Denying Claim

Far too often, Social Security fails in this basic task. For example, on September 17, 2018, a federal magistrate judge ordered Social Security to conduct a new hearing in the case of a disability applicant from Illinois. The applicant first applied for disability nearly five years ago. She claims she has been unable to work since 2008 due to “two generated or herniated discs and possible sciatica,” according to court records.

Following a hearing, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) held that the applicant did not qualify as legally disabled. The ALJ reached this conclusion after performing an RFC assessment that found that the applicant's physical limitations did not prevent her from working. After Social Security's internal appeals process upheld the ALJ's decision, the applicant sought judicial review.

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