Connecticut Judge Eviscerates Social Security ALJ, Explains How to Consider Alcoholism in Benefits Claims - Lavallee v. Astrue

October 21,2008
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As experienced Social Security disability attorneys who have represented thousands of disability benefits claimants in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, we know all too well that sometimes the Social Security Administration (SSA), its experts and even its judges just plain get it wrong. According to Connecticut federal Magistrate Judge Thomas P. Smith, however, the SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) reviewing Mathew Lavallee’s benefits claim got it very, very wrong.
In Lavallee v. Astrue, Judge Smith runs through the litany of mistakes that the ALJ apparently made in denying Lavallee’s claim. He also provides important insight into how a judge should consider a person’s alcohol abuse in deciding on the person’s Social Security benefits claim.
Mathew T. Lavallee filed a claim for Social Security disability benefits, alleging that he is unable to work due to : severe arthritis; alcoholism; torn meniscus in his right knee; an ankle injury that required repair with a metal plate and screws; degenerative disk disease; seizure disorder; and a left shoulder deformity which causes one shoulder to be four inches lower than the other.
The SSA denied the claim. Following an appellate hearing before an SSA ALJ, the ALJ found that although Plaintiff suffers from a number of severe impairments, he nevertheless could control these limitations through medication and abstinence from alcohol. Plaintiff then appealed to the federal District Court for the District of Connecticut.
“Plaintiff has so many serious impairments and maladies that it seems strange for one not to think of him as ‘disabled’ if the word ‘disability’ is given its common, everyday usage,” Magistrate Judge Smith ruled in reversing the ALJ’s decision and remanding the case. According to Smith, the ALJ unduly discounted Lavallee’s credibility based on his previous history of alcohol abuse. The ALJ’s suggestion that this abuse has caused Lavallee’s various impairments was also unsupported by the record. This abuse, according to Judge Smith, “is arguably a result, rather than the cause” of Lavallee’s sundry impairments.

Finally, Judge Smith noted that even if none of Lavallee’s impairments, considered alone, are sufficient to constitute a disability for benefits purposes, that does not mean that he is not disabled under the law when each of the impairments are considered together. “The plaintiff is a hunchbacked ex-steel worker with serious impairments,” Judge Smith stated upon considering the entire universe of Lavallee’s maladies.
This case is a prime example of just how important it is that a person whose claim for Social Security disability benefits is denied ride out the claim and appeal process to the very end. The majority of claims, including many with merit, are initially denied. However, many of these decisions are reversed through the appeal process, either by an ALJ or a federal court. An experienced disability lawyer can assist a Social Security disability claimant not only by gathering the necessary documentation to support the claim and filing the claim on the client’s behalf, but also by representing the client on appeal if necessary.