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IL disability lawyerIt is a sad truth that many of our U.S. military veterans suffer from mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, Social Security officials often compound the suffering of our veterans by refusing to classify them as disabled, even in the face of overwhelming medical evidence. Indeed, there are many cases where the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) considers a veteran disabled but Social Security does not.

Federal Court Identifies Multiple Problems with Social Security Ruling

A recent decision by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago illustrates the unnecessary hardships faced by our veterans when dealing with the Social Security disability process. The plaintiff in this case is a 49-year-old woman who served as a chief petty officer in the United States Navy. During her service, the plaintiff was subjected to sexual harassment from her supervising officer. This led the plaintiff to develop migraines and sleeping problems.

After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy eight years ago, the VA diagnosed the plaintiff with PTSD, military sexual trauma, and major depressive disorder. The plaintiff eventually applied for and received VA disability benefits. Then in 2013, the plaintiff applied for Social Security disability benefits. But Social Security denied her application after an administrative law judge (ALJ) after concluding the plaintiff “was still able to perform certain work and thus was not disabled.”

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IL disability lawyerLast year, we discussed a case that was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court involving Social Security regulations for compensating lawyers who successfully pursue disability claims on behalf of their clients. On January 8, 2019, the Court issued its decision, which provided important clarification of the law in this area.

Justices: Caps for Agency, Court Representation Are Separate

To briefly review what this case, Culbertson v. Berryhill, was about: A Social Security attorney from Florida represented a woman who was seeking disability benefits. After going through the lengthy administrative review process, Social Security denied the woman's application. The woman then decided to challenge that decision by suing the Social Security Administration in federal court.

As part of the lawsuit, the woman signed a contingency-fee agreement with her attorney, which provided he would receive 25 percent of any past-due disability benefits she received if the court action proved successful. And in fact, the lawsuit did succeed. Social Security awarded past-due benefits and the agency withheld 25 percent of that amount to pay the attorney's fees.

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IL disability lawyerOne of the key things Social Security looks for when assessing an application for disability benefits is whether or not the applicant can “make an adjustment to other work.” Many people assume they are disabled simply because they cannot go back to their old job. But the legal threshold is whether or not someone with the applicant's impairments and skill level can find any meaningful work in the economy.

To make such assessments, Social Security typically relies on the testimony of vocational experts (VEs), who are asked to estimate the type and number of jobs available to a person who hypothetically matches the disability applicant's profile. Unfortunately, it is not always clear exactly how VEs make their estimates or reach their conclusions with respect to a given disability applicant. To further complicate matters, he VEs often depend upon outdated government classification manuals when examining the types of work available.

Magistrate Orders New Hearing After Vocational Expert Refuses to Provide Data Sources

In some cases, a VEs failure to properly explain his or her methodology can justify granting an unsuccessful applicant a new disability hearing. That is exactly what happened in a recent Illinois case, Tolbert v. Berryhill. The plaintiff suffers from a number of physical impairments–including “arthritis, hypertension, right carpal tunnel, and asthma,” according to court records–that she said made it impossible for her to work.

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