Disability Law

Posner opinion takes aim at denial of disability benefits; is it a 7th Circuit trend?

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In a published opinion issued two weeks after oral argument, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned the denial of disability benefits to a woman who claimed severe pain because of a herniated disc.

The two-week turnaround by the author of the opinion (PDF), Judge Richard Posner, is quick even by his speedy standards, according to Illinois lawyer Barry Schultz, who represented the claimant. The 7th Circuit has been reversing a lot of adverse determinations in disability cases, particularly in the last year, he tells the ABA Journal.

Schultz adds that most of the Social Security reversals by the 7th Circuit are published, while most of the affirmances are unpublished, so that could affect the perception of an appeals court that is bent on reversing Social Security judges. His assessment of the increase in published reversals echoes a Twitter observation by University of Chicago law professor William Baude.

The claimant in Goins v. Colvin had testified that the incessant pain, along with drowsiness caused by medication, limited her daily activities to eating, caring for her dogs, watching TV and sleeping. An MRI taken in 2010 after she applied for disability benefits revealed she had degenerative disc disease, stenosis, and a condition in which her brain tissue extends into the spinal canal. At an evidentiary hearing, the 250-pound woman said she had to quit a cafeteria job in 2008 because it was too strenuous, and she rated her pain an 8.5. An administrative law judge concluded she was exaggerating and denied benefits.

The appeals court reversed. Posner took issue with the ALJ’s conclusion and with two doctors who evaluated the claimant’s medical records for the Social Security Administration. One, an anesthesiologist, didn’t question the diagnosis but concluded the claimant could lift objects weighing 50 pounds for a third of the workday and could even “crouch” and “crawl.” The doctor didn’t explain the basis for the conclusion. Another doctor, a pediatrician, agreed with the anesthesiologist in a half-page report that Posner deemed to be “extremely unclear.” The anesthesiologist interviewed the plaintiff, but neither doctor examined her. Nor had they been given the 2010 MRI.

The claimant’s doctor was also an anesthesiologist, albeit one who specialized in pain management. “We note the oddity of inviting a pediatrician to opine on the medical condition of a 28-year-old woman,” Posner wrote, “and likewise the oddity of asking anesthesiologists to evaluate spinal-cord problems.”

Posner said the ALJ should not have drawn adverse inferences based on the fact that the claimant had not sought frequent medical treatment. The claimant was indigent, Posner said, and had no health insurance. The ALJ also should have submitted the 2010 MRI for medical scrutiny, Posner said.

“Instead, playing doctor (a clear no-no, as we’ve noted on numerous occasions …), the administrative law judge summarized the results of the 2010 MRI in barely intelligible medical mumbo-jumbo,” Posner said. The ALJ ignored the condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal, which can cause severe headaches, Posner said, citing online information from the Mayo Clinic.

Posner also criticized Social Security Administration lawyers for arguing the ALJ had accommodated the claimant’s obesity by providing that her work duties could not require her to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and only occasionally require her to climb stairs, balance, kneel, crawl, stoop, or crouch. “Does the SSA think that if only the plaintiff were thin, she could climb ropes?” Posner asked.

“If we thought the Social Security Administration and its lawyers had a sense of humor, we would think [the argument] a joke,” Posner said.

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