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If you have filed a claim for Social Security disability benefits, you already know that perseverance is not just helpful, it is a necessity. It is not uncommon to wait a year or two, and bear two rubber-stamp denials, before you see an administrative law judge (ALJ) in person to explain your situation. Regrettably, even after a hearing before an ALJ about one-third of claims are denied. And in the past few years, denials by ALJs have become even more common. For example, one judge in Chicago has gone from approving close to 70% of cases in 2011, to fewer than 40% of cases in 2015. And there are similar examples across the country. Whether the reasons for a decline in approval rates are political or otherwise, appeals are becoming more of the rule and less of the exception.
When an ALJ denies a claim after a hearing, the case must be appealed to Social Security’s Appeals Council in Falls Church, Virginia. However, the vast majority of the time, the Appeals Council will issue a rubber-stamp boilerplate decision upholding the denial without much substance. From there, the next step is to file a lawsuit in the United States District Court against the Commissioner of Social Security. And when it comes to litigation against Social Security, we’re on it!
ALJs frequently make a similar pattern of errors in their decisions, errors that can defy common sense and which are often explained using standard form language. Like the old Wonder Bread factory on the south side of Chicago that recently closed, we at Nash Disability Law can smell these ALJ errors from a mile away, and frequently the courts can as well. For example, in one recent case in which we filed a lawsuit, the ALJ had sent our client to one of SSA’s own doctors. But because that doctor made the fatal error of finding limitations that would prevent our client from working, the ALJ decided to disregard what SSA’s own doctor said in favor of her own result-driven “medical” opinion. The ALJ also decided that, because our client could do work around the house, he could work at a full-time job – a comparison that the courts have frequently criticized because it simply doesn’t make sense. In another case, the ALJ arbitrarily disregarded the opinion of our client’s own psychiatrist and penalized our client for attempting to work (and failing) despite her medical problems. In both cases, even Social Security’s own lawyers smelled the Wonder Bread and refused to defend the erroneous decisions of the ALJ.
We have other cases pending in court for similar ALJ errors. One of our clients was previously represented by another attorney at a hearing, where the ALJ seemed to have little to no interest in our client’s situation beyond fishing for daily activities that could be used to deny her. We could smell the Wonder Bread, and once the case was in our hands, we asked for and received detailed statements from her mental health professionals who explained the reasons for her inability to work. While the Appeals Council, as usual, barely noted these explanations, the Court has now ordered the government to speak with us and determine why Social Security should not reconsider.
In yet another case, where our client was previously represented by a nationwide attorney outfit, the ALJ played “gotcha” at the hearing by seizing upon what she thought were “inconsistent” statements by our client, but didn’t take the time at the hearing to learn that, in fact, there was nothing inconsistent at all. More Wonder Bread. And while the ALJ appeared concerned about a notation made by our client’s doctor, she didn’t try to clarify that at the hearing (a common problem with ALJs), instead using this alleged problem to issue a denial. We predict that the Court will not look fondly upon this.
We know that the Social Security disability process is a long one. Even if a judge has denied your claim, don’t give up. If you need a Chicago Social Security disability lawyer to handle your appeal before SSA or in court, we’re on it!