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IL disability attorneyA Social Security disability hearing is not a criminal trial. The role of the Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) is not to assess your honesty, character, or credibility as a person. The ALJ's responsibility is to assess the medical evidence presented and make a fact-based determination as to whether or not you meet the listed requirements for disability benefits.

Federal Court Criticizes Social Security ALJ for Relying “Too Heavily” on Judgments About Applicant's Character

Although Social Security's own regulations instruct ALJs to avoid making statements regarding a disability applicant's “overall character or truthfulness,” this principle is not always followed in practice. When that happens, a federal court may decide an unsuccessful applicant is entitled to a new hearing.

To give a recent example, in a June 2020 decision, Dawn K. v. Saul, an Illinois federal magistrate judge found an ALJ relied “too heavily on character-doubting inconsistencies” in denying the plaintiff's application for disability benefits. The plaintiff is a woman in her mid-40s who applied for disability more than four years ago based on a number of impairments, notably problems with her right arm.

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IL disability lawyerWhen a federal court determines Social Security has failed to properly weigh medical evidence in a disability case, the normal course of action is to remand–return–the case to the agency for a new hearing. But what happens when Social Security ignores the court's instructions? Indeed, what happens when the same disability case is brought to court multiple times?

Magistrate: ALJ Ignored Disability Applicant's Pain During Hearing

This scenario recently played out before an Illinois federal magistrate judge. This particular case, Kimberly M. v. Saul, involves a woman who has not worked in nearly 15 years. The plaintiff is in her mid-50s and stopped working in 2005 due to ongoing complications from a back injury. Despite surgery in 2016, the plaintiff continues to experience “significant pain in her spine, right hip, buttock and leg,” according to the magistrate's opinion.

Unfortunately, the plaintiff's difficulties with the disability insurance system have proved just as persistent as her back pain. By the time of the magistrate's order in April 2020, the plaintiff had been through three separate hearings at Social Security. Each time, an administrative law judge (ALJ) determined the plaintiff did not meet the legal requirements for disability benefits. And each time, the court found Social Security ignored key medical evidence.

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IL disability lawyerMental impairments, such as bipolar disorder, often make it impossible for a person to focus on their work. When applying for disability benefits, Social Security officials often discuss an applicant's “concentration, persistence, and pace” to describe this focus, or lack thereof. Essentially, if the symptoms of your mental disorder–or even the treatment for your disorder–reduce your overall productivity in the workplace, that is a crucial piece of evidence in support of your claim for disability benefits.

Illinois Woman Granted New Hearing After Social Security Failed to Properly Assess Limits on Her Concentration, Persistence, and Pace

If a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) fails to properly account for limitations in your concentration, persistence, and pace, you may be entitled to a new hearing. This is precisely what happened in a recent Illinois disability case, Thea P. v. Saul. The plaintiff in this case filed for disability more than 5 years ago, citing a number of mental impairments, including bipolar disorder and depression.

In denying the plaintiff's application, the ALJ nevertheless found that she had “moderate difficulties of concentration, persistence, or pace.” During the hearing, the ALJ questioned a vocational expert (VE). Such experts commonly testify in disability hearings; their role is to explain the types and number of jobs a person could hold, taking into account certain limitations. Here, the ALJ asked the VE to consider the hypothetical employment opportunities for an individual who was limited to “performing more than simple routine tasks” without having to meet any “strict quotas” for production.

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