A Disability Benefits Claimant Without a Lawyer is Like a Rower Without a Paddle - Perils of going it alone

April 29,2014
imgpsh_fullsize (15)

A Missouri federal court’s recent decision in Fields v. Commissioner of Social Security is yet another example of the perils of going it alone in a Social Security Disability claim.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Edward Fields’ claim for disability benefits, in which he asserted that he’s unable to work as a result of schizophrenia and the continuing effects of a gunshot wound in his right thigh. He later appeared, without legal representation, at an administrative hearing before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Noting that the medical evidence that Fields provided in support of his claim was “scant,” the ALJ concluded that Fields was not disabled for benefits purposes because he retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform simple, unskilled work with certain physical limitations, including jobs available in the national economy.
The ALJ reached the decision based largely on the results of physical and mental consultative exams, performed by doctors engaged by the SSA to determine the extent of Fields’ impairments. After examining Fields in 2006, psychologist Kathleen King found “no indication of psychotic process” during the exam, discredited his claims that he regularly “heard voices” and concluded that he could both understand and remember simple instructions and perform repetitive tasks. Meanwhile, Dr. Charles Kelly found that Fields suffered from a minor foot impairment, but otherwise did not have any significant limitations, during a physical examination.
At hearing, Fields testified that he had held a series of temporary jobs since he allegedly became disabled. While the ALJ found that this work did not rise to the level of “gainful activity,” the judge noted that Fields’ impairments did not limit his ability to do it. Furthermore, although Fields testified that he was taking prescribed medication for schizophrenia, the judge found no evidence to support his claim. Fields told Dr. Kelly that he was not using medication at the time of his consultative exam.
The district court affirmed the ALJ’s decision on appeal. “As he did during the entire administrative process, Plaintiff is proceeding pro se,” the Court noted, referring to the fact that Fields was not represented by a lawyer. “His filings make clear his desire to appeal the Commissioner’s final decision, but they fail to specify any allegations of error,” the Court added.


Nevertheless, the Court proceeded to review the ALJ’s decision, finding no evidence in the record contradicting the decision or indicating that Fields’ limitations were more extensive than the ALJ determined. “Based on this Record, the Court is compelled to conclude the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence.”
While we can’t guarantee that Fields’ claim would have succeeded had he been represented by a competent, experienced Social Security Disability lawyer, we can say that an attorney could have provided vital assistance and expertise that can not only speed up decision time, but also mean the difference between the approval and denial of a claim. After evaluating the claim, a lawyer likely would have sought to obtain additional medical evidence to support it and reviewed the consultative exams for gaps and inconsistencies.
Related blog posts:
New York Social Security Disability Case Shows the Importance of Having a Good Lawyer – Giunta v. Commissioner of Social Security
In Social Security Disability Cases, Don’t Give Up – Rife v. Commissioner of Social Security
A Good Social Security Lawyer Doesn’t Allow Reasonable Minds to Differ – Smith v. Astrue