Court Reverses Social Security Disability Decision for Failure to Properly Consider Mental Impairments - Jusino v. Commissioner of Social Security

April 01,2014
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As experienced Social Security Disability attorneys who have represented thousands of clients in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in claims for disability benefits, we understand that many people are not able to work as a result of a combination of physical and mental impairments. In Jusino v. Commissioner of Social Security, the District Court for the District of Puerto Rico vacates a Social Security judge’s decision on a disability benefits claim, finding that the judge failed to properly take into account the full extent of the claimant’s mental impairments on his ability to work.
Plaintiff Rafael Cabanillas died as a result of arterial hypertension and diabetes mellitus while his claim for Social Security Disability benefits was pending before the Social Security Administration (SSA). He had also been diagnosed with major depression and severe panic disorder with agoraphobia prior to his death.
The SSA initially denied Cabanillas’ claim. Following an administrative hearing before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the ALJ determined that Cabanillas was not disabled for benefits purposes during the period for which he was covered under the SSA’s Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, August 2003 to December 2008. Specifically, the ALJ found that, while Cabanillas had moderate limitations in his daily living activities and could not return to work as a shipping clerk or salesperson, he retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of light work, including jobs as table worker and small product assembler.
Cabanillas’ mother, Flor Jusino, was substituted as the Plaintiff in this case following Cabanillas’s death.
On appeal, the District Court reversed the ALJ’s decision, finding that it was not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the Court found that the ALJ failed to properly consider the non-exertional limitations imposed by Cabanillas’ mental impairments.
A vocational expert (VE) testified at the administrative hearing regarding the type of work that could be performed by an individual whose maximum level of exertion is light and maximum mental level of exertion allows him to do only simple and repetitive tasks. However, according to the Court, the hypothetical questions posed by an ALJ to a VE should be tailored in a way that “captures the concrete consequences of a claimant’s deficiencies,” the Court ruled. Because the hypotheticals posed by the ALJ in this case did not cover the full extent of limitations imposed by Cabanillas’ mental impairments, the Court concluded that the ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence.
An experienced Social Security disability lawyer can provide vital assistance to a claimant in an ALJ hearing, including one in which a VE testifies. Specifically, the disability attorney can present information to the ALJ in a way that will shape the hypothetical questions that the ALJ poses to the VE and cross-examine the VE to ensure that his or her opinion is accurate. He can also ask his own questions of the VE if those asked by the ALJ do not accurately reflect the claimant’s limitations and restrictions.