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IL disability lawyerYou would think in assessing an application for disability benefits, Social Security would give greater weight to the opinions of a specialist who actually treated the applicant over rather than a less-qualified doctor who only performed a casual examination. But the reality is Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) often prefer whatever testimony supports a finding the applicant is not disabled.

Magistrate Orders New Hearing After ALJ Credits Opinions of Family Doctor Over Orthopedic Surgeon

A recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Cheryl G. v. Saul, helps to illustrate this problem. The plaintiff in this case previously worked as a legal secretary and school bus driver. But she has been unable to work in any capacity since 2010 as the result of a severe ankle injury that required multiple surgeries.

In fact, the plaintiff has had surgeries performed on her since 2010. One of the plaintiff's surgeons testified about her job prospects during a deposition in connection with the plaintiff's efforts to obtain workers' compensation benefits. In this deposition, the surgeon said the plaintiff "could have probably done some kind of sedentary duty if such an occupation existed in a bus driving facility." But she was unable to drive and would require "substantial breaks or half days to allow her to function." And due to the nature of the plaintiff's injuries, the surgeon said she could not sit for prolonged periods of time.

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IL disability lawyerEarlier this year we discussed a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling that impacts the rights of individuals applying for Social Security disability benefits. In Biestek v. Berryhill, the Court said vocational experts (VEs) who testify in disability hearings are not categorically required to disclose the underlying data used in assessing the applicant's hypothetical job prospects. Nevertheless, the Court said an administrative law judge or reviewing court could look at a VEs refusal to disclose such data when assessing the overall credibility of their testimony.

Magistrate Finds ALJ "Failed to Respond" to Disability Applicant's Concerns Over Job Estimates

A more recent decision from a federal magistrate judge here in Illinois, Jerry P. v. Saul, offers some guidance as to how lower courts are applying the Biestek decision. The plaintiff in this case applied for disability benefits in 2014. Following a 2016 hearing, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) rejected the plaintiff's application.

The ALJ relied heavily on the testimony of a VE, who said the plaintiff could still work as a "hand packer, assembler, or sorter" despite his impairments. The VE further stated such jobs "existed in significant numbers in the national economy" and offered specific estimates for each of the three occupations.

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IL disability attorneySocial Security disability insurance covers both physical and mental disorders that prevent a person from working. With respect to mental or “intellectual” disorders, an IQ test is often used to help Social Security determine whether or not someone is disabled. But while a low IQ score can provide useful evidence in supporting a disability claim, it is not by itself definitive proof of such a disability.

7th Circuit: Social Security Did Not Properly Consider Disability Applicant's Limited Math Abilities

Put another way, even if a disability applicant has a low IQ score, Social Security will still deny benefits if it believes the applicant can still perform “simple, repetitive work.” More to the point, Social Security must show there is such work that the applicant could actually perform given their intellectual limitations.

In a recent decision, Williams v. Saul, a federal appeals court held Social Security failed to make such a showing. The plaintiff in this case is a 25-year-old man with an IQ of 64. At a hearing before a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ), a medical expert testified the plaintiff's “math skills were at a second-grade level.” He gave incorrect answers to basic addition and multiplication problems, and could not perform division at all.

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