Dispatches from the Frontlines of Social Security Disability During this Pandemic

May 7, 2020

Like a rock thrown into the calm waters of a pond, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are rippling through society. Every day, we see or hear about how this virus has changed our lives in new, unexpected, or unintended ways. As our team at Nash Disability Law has observed, this certainly is true for disabled Americans and the NDL law firm. It has been hard to get a bead on the impact, what is important to do and not to do, along with when and how to go about it. Like the information about the virus and the recovery plan itself, it often seems that reliable information changes daily.

During the current situation, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has closed its field offices and suspended in-person disability hearings. SSA Administrative Law Judges have begun conducting hearings by telephone. The loss of the former and the prospect of the government’s and our own execution of the latter have been fairly foreboding. Will the judges only do the hearings by phone if they are able and willing to come into the office with the applicable technology? Will the hearings and critical processes move forward in a reasonably regular manner if judges are allowed to handle telephone hearings from their homes? Uncertainty surrounding the evaluation of the credibility of our clients and any hearing witnesses is great, and requires us to focus on what we might be able to do to enhance client prospects – sure, a “hearing” after a long wait is good, but a win is the only thing that puts food on the table. While some clients like the fast-emerging telephone hearings and some do not, they raise some concerns among the attorneys at Nash Disability Law.

If you or someone you care about is disabled and has been approved for Social Security disability benefits, or is thinking about or in the process of applying for benefits, we think you will be interested in these stories—these dispatches from the front.

Dispatches

Administrative Law Judge Understood Our Client

From Attorney Elizabeth Blackwell: “I have a client who had a shunt placed on the left side of her brain in 2008, and over the past 12 months, she has had an increase in symptoms including headaches, blurred vision, and vertigo. Unfortunately, during this pandemic she has to go to emergency rooms to get treatment for these severe issues. Recently she saw her neurologist after her insurance problems were sorted out, and she was advised that she needs a second shunt placed on the right side. She got this news in early March and hasn’t been able to even schedule surgery because it’s an “elective surgery,” and her neurologist doesn’t want her to risk a COVID-19 infection. She’s frustrated because the solution to some of her health problems is so close, but not obtainable right now.

Fortunately, there is some good news here. We were able to get her approved for disability benefits at her hearing in early April. During an unusual telephone hearing, the Social Security Administrative Law Judge was very kind and empathetic. Our client really appreciated that the approval decision was essentially an acknowledgement from someone that what she’s going through sucks and is really impacting her life significantly.”

The Case of the Serial Mailer

From Attorney Tom Nash: “More than ten years ago I obtained an approval for benefits for a client we will call ‘Sergio’ (to maintain confidentiality we are not using real client names). Sergio has a serious mental illness. It was upsetting to me that, like so many instances of the mass incarceration of the mentally ill, he ended up in jail. He must’ve mailed me at least 100 items from jail over the past decade, all reflecting not a quasi-rational jailhouse attorney plea for relief, but instead stuff that reflected his schizophrenia.

Since his release last summer, we have been trying to get Sergio approved for disability benefits again, but he was initially denied and homeless. I was desperate to get some meaningful information about his functional abilities from a relative. Once I found and spoke with his sister, I asked her whether she was aware that he has a tendency to mail stuff to various attorneys, government officials, courts, and so on. She had countless examples of Sergio’s “serial mailing” behavior. She shared with me the dark humor associated with her good faith struggles in attempting to help her very ill brother. She has been busy herself steadily hiding her important papers, lest Sergio will suddenly mail them off in his symptomatic state!

The prospect of the government delaying a favorable decision or an unfavorable decision (allowing us to appeal) while they waited for an examination by an SSA doctor was very discouraging. With COVID, such examinations are rare. But even in this so unusual pandemic time, we were able to communicate to Social Security enough about Sergio, his history, his current state, and this case’s relationship to mental health policy in America to get him approved.”

Panic During the Pandemic

From Attorney James Leeny: “‘Susie’ is very paranoid and the pandemic has made it much worse. For example, she needed to go out to get her medications a few days before I had a prep meeting with her. Susie told me that she was so afraid when she got into the store that she had a full-blown panic attack. She left the pharmacy without getting the medications.

When I dug deeper into her case I learned that she was in tele-psychiatry as her main treatment. I suggested that we try to call her counselor to see if we could get in touch with the doctor about the increased symptoms. We were able to get an appointment for her right away. Also, I talked to her boyfriend about picking up the medications for Susie, which they didn’t know they could do.”

My Grandmother Was All I Had

From Attorney Dan Rosen: “We have a client, we’ll call ‘Jack”, who has PTSD related to a work accident (which compounded a schizoaffective disorder he already had), and it got so bad that he attempted suicide in 2018. This is in addition to severe back pain which is treated with high doses of multiple pain medications. Jack bounces around between family and friends.

Jack’s grandmother recently died, and he found her in the bathtub. Due to the COVID crisis and strained resources, he said it took authorities several days to come and get her body. He’s now homeless; he said his grandmother was all he had. He was very tearful on the phone. They increased his meds and he’s doing a little better and seems to be hanging in there. I was really impressed with our staff—case managers Cammie and Casey—who listened to him, cared about him, and told the Social Security adjudicator all of Jack’s story. We are very hopeful that Jack will be able to get the benefits and medical help he needs.”

From case manager Betsy: “Talking to prospective or current clients and empowering them by offering information is extremely rewarding to me, especially in these current times when so much is out of our control.”

Treatment Difficulties May Have a Silver Lining

Tom Nash says, “Elective procedures such as injections, tests for breathing, circulation, nerve damage, heart function, and degenerative disc disease, or just regular medical care, are at the heart of a disability claim. Absence yields great uncertainty for the progression and proper understanding of the claims of our clients. ALJs are notorious for, ‘I would happily approve your client but I am lacking the recordations, so my hands are tied.’ We want to continue to represent everyone we think has a legitimate claim (our business model has never been about cherry-picking)! And we want to employ the personnel to champion their rights, even with those sorts of storm clouds hovering around.”

From Attorney Meaghan Doyle: “We have definitely run into challenges with clients obtaining ongoing treatment, though a few clients have had success with mental tele-health appointments. I am hopeful that this trend will continue since we have so many clients who have a hard time with transportation or anxiety or fear of leaving their homes, even in the absence of a pandemic. Maybe this will ease some of the resistance a lot of mental health providers have shown regarding telephone or video psych treatment going forward.”

Like Reading a Book Yourself

From Attorney Jason Diaz: “Clients have different reactions to the phone hearings. Some have been relieved that they will not have to speak about their troubles in person. However, there have been a few that have been concerned that the judge will not see their humanity in a face-to-face meeting. One client, who was worried that the Administrative Law Judge would not understand her pain, wrote a great personal statement outlining how she has struggled throughout her life with PTSD, coming from an abusive childhood as well as being a victim of kidnapping and more. I think these personal statements can help the ALJ with some context that they wouldn’t get over the phone. I would compare it to reading a book yourself rather than having someone explain a summary to you.

While these phone hearings have been a reasonable compromise during uncertain times, I look forward to doing them in person again. In a case where a given ALJ does not have much empathy, that is magnified on the phone.”

Missed Appointments Problem Will Get Worse

From Attorney Rob Dorton: “We hear about clients having to miss their last medical appointment. In a few months, it will be many appointments.

I’m definitely taking note if I think the client could have been viewed in a more favorable light in person. That will go in my appeal. It’s still hard for me to get used to the fact that I’m doing a phone prep and phone hearing and will receive a decision without ever seeing the client face-to- face.”

Arthritic Baggage Handler

We recently had a brief call from a very deserving prospective client, “Tom,” a former airport baggage handler with bad knees who is of SSA’s early retirement age. One gets the retirement benefit then but with a penalty for taking benefits early. “Tom” was mistaken in thinking he can’t also apply for and win a disability claim and therefore was missing out on important money, monthly for the rest of his life. Under ordinary circumstances he would come in to meet us, we could better establish trust – and he would likely then understand what he will be missing.

Scavenging for Fluorescent Bulbs

From Attorney Jason Diaz: “I generally have to warn ALJs they potentially will hear my son yelling from across the house.” From Attorney Dan Rosen: “It doesn’t help if you are trying to review 986 pages of University of Chicago records, and your child opens the door and urgently demands to know how many fluorescent light bulbs are in the room for his Zoom school scavenger hunt.”

Going to the Dogs

From Lawrence Mabes: “Once I was leaving a message with Social Security’s Office of Hearing Operations at the same time Amazon was delivering a package which set Sofia (the Chihuahua) on a barking rampage. I had to stop my message short and I forgot to leave a call back number. When I called the scheduler back, not only did she find the situation funny, but I also learned that she had a large Husky sitting on her lap as we spoke.” And Attorney Dan Rosen adds: “During one phone hearing the judge’s dog barked through the whole proceeding.”

Lawrence Mabes working at home with Sofia at his feet

Drive-through Justice?

From Attorney Rachael King: “While we advise clients to be at home in a quiet room during their phone hearings, that doesn’t always happen! Despite counsel’s advice and instruction, one of our clients went through a drive-thru and ordered breakfast during the hearing, and another was clearly in the bathroom and the judge noticed the echo.”

Conclusion
From Tom Nash

During this time of so many changes rippling through our society, one thing has not changed and will not change: at Nash Disability Law we will continue to work hard to deserve the trust you have placed in our firm. The lawyers and staff at Nash Disability Law remain available to help you with your disability case. Our team is working remotely, and we are ready to help you on the phone, through email, or through the use of other technology when necessary, including through the use of videoconferencing as accessibility allows.

Once it is safe to do so, we look forward to meeting you in our offices again. One of our recently approved clients recently sent us a nice note saying, “Mr. Nash, we personally met in the elevator heading up to your offices last November 2019 and I was wearing an ‘I Love Chicago’ cap that you complimented me on.” Meeting and preparing our clients in person is a big part of our advocacy, and we hope to see you soon. Until then, stay safe! And we hope you and your family will take comfort in this poem:

This is the Time To be Slow
by John O’Donohue

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
and blushed with beginning.