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IL disability attorneyA key part of any Social Security disability hearing occurs when an administrative law judge (ALJ) poses one or more “hypothetical questions” to a vocational expert. These questions are designed to help the ALJ determine what kind of jobs the applicant for disability benefits may still be able to perform in spite of their physical or mental impairments. The applicant has the right to cross-examine the VE regarding these hypothetical questions, as well as ask the ALJ to incorporate certain information when formulating the questions in the first place.

Seventh Circuit Rejects Disability Applicant's Appeal of Fourth Social Security Denial

But the mere fact an applicant disagrees with the ALJ's hypothetical question does not, in and of itself, mean the question was invalid. A recent decision from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Saunders v. Saul, offers a helpful illustration of this point.

In this case, a Wisconsin man applied for Social Security disability benefits in 2005. Over the intervening 14 years, there have been at least four separate hearings on the plaintiff's application, all of which ended with an ALJ ruling he did not qualify as legally disabled.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_diagnosis.jpgIn Social Security disability cases, agency officials are not allowed to “play doctor.” Instead, administrative law judges (ALJs) are expected to look at the medical evidence presented to them. And if two doctors offer different medical assessments of a disability applicant, it is the ALJ's job to resolve that conflict.

ALJ Unable to Resolve Cause of Disability Applicant's “Exploding Head Syndrome”

Here is a recent Illinois disability case, John L. v. Berryhill, where the ALJ did not do that. In this case, the plaintiff applied for Social Security disability benefits seven years ago. At a 2015 hearing, an ALJ considered medical evidence related to the plaintiff's sleep parasomnia, i.e., his sleep disorder.

A sleep specialist diagnosed the plaintiff with “possible exploding head syndrome.” This refers to a rare type of parasomnia “in which affected individuals awaken from sleep with the sensation of a loud bang,” according to a 2013 report from the National Institutes of Health. The plaintiff told the specialist that he “heard sounds when he was sleepy 4 to 5 times a day or when he shifted his attention.”

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IK diability attorneyA key step in the Social Security disability process is the determination of an applicant's “residual functional capacity” or RFC. The RFC is designed to account for an applicant's physical and mental limitations in assessing what type of work, if any, they are still able to perform. If Social Security fails to account for a particular limitation in performing an RFC, the agency needs to explain why.

Social Security Cannot Reject Disability Applicant's Testimony without Explanation

For example, if a disability applicant says he requires a cane to walk or get around, the RFC needs to account for this limitation. Alternatively, the Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) overseeing the case must explain why the applicant's testimony is inconsistent with the other evidence in the record–i.e., that the applicant does not medically require a cane. What the ALJ cannot do is simply ignore the testimony regarding the need for a cane without explanation.

In fact, an Illinois federal magistrate recently returned a disability case to Social Security precisely for this reason. The plaintiff in this case applied for disability benefits in 2014. An ALJ conducted a hearing in 2017. Following the hearing, the ALJ denied the plaintiff's application.

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