The path to winning Social Security disability benefits can be complex, confusing and difficult to navigate. An oft-quoted African proverb says “It takes a village to raise a child.” Likewise, it often takes a team—a specialized and dedicated team—to win a disability case. Let me illustrate my point by sharing of the story of a hard-won victory which starts with a particularly brutal conflict—the Bosnian War.
Our client, Ms. B, has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which, in the words of a psychologist contracted by the Social Security Administration, “[was] related to traumatic experiences from witnessing the war in Bosnia.” The Bosnian War was a long and ugly conflict that broke out in 1992 in the former Yugoslavia after the fall of communism. Well-armed Bosnian Serbs attacked mainly the Muslim population but killed also many others with vicious ferocity. Finally, after more than three and half years of conflict, a peace treaty was hammered out under the supervision of the United Nations, but not before as many as 300,000 people were slaughtered.
Ms. B came to the U.S. as a war refugee, and now lives near Nash Disability Law’s Elgin office. She worked consistently for many years in a factory and in food service, jobs for which she paid into Social Security. Her treatment with a psychiatrist for PTSD began in 2010, and her first Social Security disability hearing was in 2014 when she was 45 years-old. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a severe anxiety disorder that causes severe symptoms of stress, including recurring memories, flashbacks, and hyper-vigilance in response to a traumatic event, such as armed combat, rape, physical abuse, natural disaster, or personal injury. Her own psychiatrist noted that Ms. B, due to being caught up in the Bosnian War, experienced panic attacks on and off for ten years, had difficulty sleeping, generally felt hopeless and helpless, and had suffered eight miscarriages. All of these symptoms made it difficult for her to function in daily life and eventually impossible for her to hold a job.
Despite her debilitating condition, Ms. B’s claim for benefits was denied by an administrative law judge (ALJ) at Social Security. While Ms. B. had been represented by a different representative at her earlier hearing, she enlisted our help on appeal.
I was the first member of our firm to work with Ms. B, and I was confident that we could do something to change the ALJ’s decision that was riddled with errors. The ALJ suggested doubt that Ms. B was even in Bosnia during the war. As I peeled away the details of the case, I found this erroneous conclusion was based on a work form that Ms. B completed, which the judge said showed income in the United States at the time of the war. This was patently wrong. In reality, her official SSA earnings records reflected only earnings starting in 1997— after the war. I was also troubled by the ALJ’s finding that Ms. B’s PTSD was not a severe impairment, meaning that it did not more than minimally affect her ability to sustain full-time work.
Nash Case Manager Mitch Frazier managed this case from beginning to end, and through his diligent work, we were able to compile the notes and a statement from her treating psychiatrist who wrote, in part, that she “suffers from disturbing flashbacks of war both during the day and the middle of the night. These severe flashbacks impair her living, even with every day activities.”
We appealed the Judge’s decision to the Appeals Council, which is somewhat different from the other levels of appeal. Its purpose is not simply to evaluate the merits of a disability claim, but to determine if the ALJ who denied the original claim made a legal error. I showed the Appeals Council that Ms. B’s PTSD was a severe impairment and the reason the ALJ inferred that Ms. B was not present during the war may have been simply because the ALJ at the hearing didn’t ask her about it!
Although the Appeals Council denied our request for review, we were on our way to building a credible and convincing case that our client was caught up in the Bosnian War and that her PTSD was a serious impairment. The stage was set for an appeal to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Nash Attorney Dan Rosen moved the court to reverse the original ALJ’s decision because it contained errors of law and was not supported by substantial evidence. The District Court agreed, and we won a right to a new hearing.
Nash attorney Lawrence Mabes represented Ms. B at her new hearing. Lawrence has appeared at over a thousand Social Security Disability hearings, representing people who need benefits because they cannot work. He represented Ms. B in front of the same judge, but this time, the judge found in Ms. B’s favor, and she was finally awarded benefits back to her original application in April 2012. Ms. B. will now receive almost 7 years of past-due benefits totaling over $60,000, as well as a monthly benefit and much-needed Medicare.
While a “nationwide” company stopped representing Ms. B after the judge initially denied her, I am proud of this team that wouldn’t give up, but instead kept leaning forward on behalf of our client, and she eventually received justice. Winning disability cases is seldom easy, but it is always satisfying to see the most vulnerable in our society, the disabled, get the benefits they have rightfully earned. Ms. B’s emotional “thank you” with the receipt of the hard-fought approval only puts our daily work in the context it deserves – our clients inspire us every day.