Articles Posted in Public Benefits

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Plessinger was born with congenital spinal stenosis. He began experiencing back pain in 2010, at age 23. He worked as a diesel mechanic, electric lineman, fast food worker, welder, and truck driver. A 2012 accident exacerbated a prior injury from falling at work. He had surgery for a disc rupture in 2013. Later in 2013, in connection with Plessinger’s application for Social Security disability benefits, non‐examining consultants assessed his residual functional; one determined that Plessinger had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, another determined he could perform only sedentary work. Plessinger was later diagnosed with failed back surgery syndrome. In 2014, a doctor determined that Plessinger could walk only 20-30 feet and could stand for only five minutes. An ALJ found that he was severely impaired by his lumbar degenerative disc disease and stenosis, thoracic degenerative disc disease, obesity, and systemic hypertension but found the impairments not disabling. The Seventh Circuit reversed. In the face of the great weight of medical evidence supporting Plessinger’s claims of disabling impairments, the ALJ gave undue weight to the opinion of a medical expert who did not examine Plessinger and hedged his opinion in a critical way that was never resolved. The ALJ’s decision to discount the credibility of Plessinger's complaints of pain was not supported by substantial evidence. View "Plessinger v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

Posted in: Public Benefits

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The Social Security Administration (SSA) reduced the payment of a back-award that it owed Berg by the amount of an earlier overpayment that Berg owed to SSA. Berg contested this setoff because it was taken during the 90-day period before the filing of her bankruptcy petition. The bankruptcy court concluded that SSA permissibly recovered $17,385 of overpayment but impermissibly improved its position by $2,015. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Under 11 U.S.C. 553(b)(2), a debtor (Berg) may recover from a creditor (SSA) an amount set off by the creditor in the 90 days preceding the filing of the bankruptcy petition only to the extent that the creditor improved its position during that 90-day period. The bankruptcy court correctly calculated the accrual of Berg’s benefits as occurring on the dates that she had a right to benefits--the last day of each month that she was eligible for benefits and survived to the end of the month. On May 9, 2014, 90 days before the filing of the petition, that amount was $17,385. Because Berg then owed SSA $19,400, the insufficiency on that date was $2,015. On July 30, the date the SSA took the setoff, Berg still owed SSA $19,400, but SSA owed her $20,307; SSA improved its position by $2,015 during the 90-day preference period. That is the amount that Berg may now recover. View "Berg v. Social Security Administration" on Justia Law

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Walker has degrees in robotics and electrical engineering and worked for 21 years, primarily as an engineer, before suffering a stroke in 2008. Walker was not able to return to work after his stroke. Medical records show that his physical and cognitive condition has gradually worsened since 2008. In 2012, medical professionals documented his cognitive and memory deficits, and difficulty with balance and walking, dizziness. By 2013 Walker was unable to live alone and moved in with his mother. The Social Security Administration determined that Walker became disabled in December 2014. An ALJ, in a separate proceeding, determined that Walker was not disabled before that date. The district court affirmed. The Seventh Circuit vacated and remanded. The ALJ’s conclusion sweeps too broadly by not accounting for medical and other evidence strongly suggesting that Walker’s condition and residual functional capacity had worsened to such a degree that he became disabled by approximately the middle of 2012. View "Walker v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

Posted in: Public Benefits

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Penrod applied for disability benefits and supplemental security income in 2010, at age 45, after having a heart attack. The district court affirmed the denial of benefits. Penrod filed a second application for disability insurance benefits only, alleging that he was disabled because of arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, short‐term memory loss, and asthma, from April 2012-June 2013. Medical evidence was sparse. After his heart attack, Penrod received a stent and regular follow‐up care. Penrod’s poverty and lack of health insurance complicated his treatment. After reviewing Penrod’s medical records, two consultative doctors agreed that he could perform light work, with postural and environmental limitations. At a hearing, Penrod focused on the difficulty of finding a job with his limited education, noting his inability to stand or sit for prolonged periods, limited grip, fatigue and dizziness from his medications, pain in his hips and back, and kidney stones. He had suffered another heart attack in 2014. After the hearing, Penrod died from cardiac arrest. The ALJ denied Penrod’s application, finding that although Penrod’s impairments could result in the types of symptoms he alleged, the medical evidence did not support his testimony about his limitations. The ALJ noted Penrod’s smoking and his frequent reports that he was unable to afford medications and recommended tests in assessing his credibility. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Substantial evidence supported a finding that Penrod retained the capacity to work through his last insured date. View "Penrod v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

Posted in: Public Benefits

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Spicher suffers from osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, fibromyalgia, and morbid obesity. In 2010, Spicher applied for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income dating back to 2003. After a 2012 hearing, an ALJ found that Spicher was not disabled from 2003-2012. The district court remanded because the ALJ had not properly considered the limitations imposed by Spicher’s obesity, independently and in combination with her other impediments. On remand, Spicher focused on whether she had been disabled since December 2008, when her insured status expired. The ALJ consulted a second doctor who essentially adopted the findings of the medical reports already in the record. The ALJ stated that further consideration of Spicher’s obesity had not motivated her to change her conclusion, finding that Spicher could hold a sedentary position and perform three jobs identified by a vocational expert, and could occasionally crouch, crawl, balance, stoop, and kneel. The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that the decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ did not address contradictory medical evidence when determining the types of sedentary jobs that Spicher could hold and failed to consider the interaction between her obesity and her non‐severe impairments. The court rejected a claim that the ALJ displayed antagonism toward Spicher in violation of her due process rights. View "Spicher v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

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Lambert applied for Disability Insurance Benefits in 2012 at age 41 alleging disabling lower back pain. In 2004 discs in his lumbar spine had been surgically fused with a rod. In 2008 surgeons repaired the rod. In 2010 Lambert began experiencing back pain “most of the time” and had “intermittent” pain down his left leg that often caused him to fall. By late 2012 Lambert had tried steroid injections in his spine and pelvis, chiropractic care, medication, and physical therapy. Several neurosurgeons found the cause unclear; three said further surgery was not an option. In denying Lambert’s application, an ALJ concluded that Lambert suffers from degenerative disc disease that is severely impairing but not disabling, giving little weight to the most recent opinions of his treating neurosurgeon and discrediting Lambert’s own testimony about the severity of his pain and extent of his limitations. The Seventh Circuit reversed. The ALJ failed to explain why the treating neurosurgeon’s opinions were entitled to less weight than those of the agency physicians, rendered before some key medical evidence was compiled. The ALJ improperly relied on Lambert’s application for unemployment compensation to discount his credibility in seeking disability benefits; a claimant’s desire to work is not evidence that the claimant has embellished his limitations. View "Lambert v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

Posted in: Public Benefits

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In 2007, Chavez, then 21, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent five surgeries. Chavez experienced depression and anxiety. She struggled to maintain concentration to complete simple household tasks and suffered from migraine headaches, back pain (caused by degenerative disc disease), and numbness in her feet and hands. Chavez had no prior work experience. In 2010 Chavez applied for Social Security supplemental security income. Chavez could perform only simple, routine tasks with significant restrictions on how much she could lift. The vocational expert enlisted by the agency to estimate the number of jobs suitable for Chavez testified that for one particular job there were either 800 or 108,000 existing positions but preferred the larger estimate. The administrative law judge agreed and denied Chavez’s claim. The district court affirmed. The Seventh Circuit vacated. The decision was not supported by substantial evidence; the ALJ failed to ensure that the vocational expert’s job estimates were reliable. The vocational expert offered no explanation for why his estimates (or his method) were reliable, instead reaching a conclusion by determining that the estimates yielded by an alternative method seemed too low. By affording such broad deference to the vocational expert’s chosen estimates, the ALJ relieved the agency of its evidentiary burden at the final step of the analysis, impermissibly shifting the burden to Chavez. View "Chavez v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

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In 2000, Kaminski fell down a flight of stairs, suffering a head wound that caused a traumatic brain injury and a seizure disorder. He applied under the Social Security Act for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income 13 years later. The Social Security Administration denied his applications; the district court upheld the denial. The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that the administrative law judge improperly rejected his treating physician’s opinions. The treating physician’s opinions and the testimony of the vocational expert together show that Kaminski is disabled. View "Kaminski v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

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Britt, now 55, applied for Disability Benefits and Supplemental Security Income after a construction crane smashed his big toe in 2008. An ALJ granted Britt benefits for the period beginning in March 2013, but denied him benefits for the four-year period immediately preceding that time because he could perform sedentary work. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting Britt’s argument that the ALJ disregarded his testimony about his need to elevate his foot, as well as an orthopedic surgeon’s report about the same, and gave too little weight to an agency doctor’s opinion that he could work for only 3.5 hours in a day. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision. View "Britt v. Berryhill" on Justia Law

Posted in: Public Benefits

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Stephens was born in 1957 and has a ninth-grade education. He worked as a taxi dispatcher and a security guard in the 15 years preceding his alleged disability. Stephens contends that he is disabled by diabetes, kidney disease, knee and back pain, heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, and obesity. He was denied Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. On remand, a different ALJ determined that Stephens’ impairments, although severe, were not disabling and that he could perform relevant past work. The district court and Seventh Circuit upheld the denial, rejecting arguments that the ALJ erred by improperly evaluating Stephens’s obesity (no longer a stand-alone disability) when determining the aggregate impact of his impairments; that the ALJ’s finding that the record lacked medical opinion evidence as to Stephens’ hypersomnolence or excessive sleepiness; and that the ALJ failed to incorporate all of his impairments and consider their combined impact to evaluate his residual functional capacity. View "Stephens v. Berryhill" on Justia Law