ALJ Shortcuts Put Social Security Disability Applicants on a Fast Track to Denial

August 9, 2013

Often times disability applicants are denied because a judge draws concrete conclusions from personally held presumptions. Sometimes it’s that the applicant’s treatment was only “conservative” or “routine” or “inconsistent with what would be expected if the claimant truly had a disabling condition.” Sometimes the judge has seized upon a good faith report from the applicant that he or she ” walks the dog” or “makes the bed” or that he or she “attended his or her granddaughter’s volleyball game” as proof positive of his or her ability to work a full-time competitive job.  When it happens, this is usually a red flag that little analysis was actually performed and that a “shortcut” was used to justify a Social Security disability denial.  When a judge founds a denial on such assumptions and/or speculations, that denial must be scrutinized and, as appropriate, appealed.  

A string of case law from the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has continued to roundly criticize such result-driven practices, including Bjornson v. Astrue; Craft v. Astrue; Gentel v. Barnhart.  Recently, in Hughes v. Astrue, the court indentified a number of common, harmful errors that underscore the degree to which result-driven assumptions or “boilerplate” characterizations not only lead to bad or unfair results, but are clear evidence of some judges’ lack of interest in the hard realities that applicants grapple with everyday.

For example, “emergency rooms charge for their services and are required to treat an indigent person only if the indigent person is experiencing a medical emergency” OR “the ability to perform basic household chores does not equate with the ability to sustain competitive employment…”

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals added, “The critical difference between activities of daily living and activities in a full-time job is that a person has more flexibility in scheduling the former than the latter, can get help from others and is not held to a minimum standard of performance as she would be by an employer. The failure to recognize these differences is a recurrent and deplorable feature of opinions formed by Administrative Law Judges in Social Security Disability cases.”