Disabled or Not Disabled: In Social Security Cases, That is The Question - Small v. Commissioner of Social Security

July 28,2009
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Sometimes a decision in a Social Security Disability case makes you scratch your head. In Small v. Commissioner of Social Security, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida took on a case where a Social Security judge found that a disability benefits claimant was disabled before he later found that she was not disabled.
In 2003, Plaintiff Angela Small filed a claim for Social Security disability benefits, asserting that she was unable to work due to back pain, migraines, anxiety and depression. The Social Security Administration (SSA) initially denied the claim. In a hearing before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the Plaintiff’s lawyer informed the ALJ that she wanted to amend her claim to assert that her disability only lasted from April 1, 2003, to July 22, 2005. The judge awarded benefits for this “closed period” of disability.
Plaintiff later appealed, claiming that she remains disabled and should be awarded benefits beyond July 2005. The SSA Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ’s award. Following another hearing before the ALJ, the judge issued another decision, finding that Plaintiff had not been disabled since April 2003 and denying her benefits claim despite the earlier favorable determination covering the same period.
On appeal, the Middle District reversed the ALJ’s decision, ruling that it was not supported by substantial evidence. “Weighing the opinions and findings of treating, examining, and non-examining physicians is an integral part of…the ALJ’s sequential evaluation process for determining disability,” the court noted. Citing the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Winschel v. Commissioner of Social Security, the Court further explained that an ALJ considering a medical opinion must “state with particularity the weight given to it and the reasons therefore.”
In this case, the ALJ stated that he gave “some weight” to the opinion of Dr. George Solomon, who determined that Plaintiff was permanently unable to work due to her impairments. The judge did not, however, indicate whether the opinion was consistent with other medical evidence in the record. In fact, according to the court, it was unclear whether the ALJ actually considered Dr. Solomon’s opinion at all. “The Court cannot tell if the ALJ considered Dr. Solomon’s opinion in his most recent decision, the weight given to Dr. Solomon’s opinion or the reasons such weight was given.”

As a result, the court reversed the decision and remanded the case back to the ALJ for further proceedings.
A person who is unable to work for one year or more due to a physical or mental impairment — or combination of impairments — is generally eligible for Social Security Disability benefits. In order to obtain benefits, the person must file a claim with the SSA, which, as this case shows, can be a long and complicated process.
The lesson learned from this case is that appealing a “closed period” of disability or a partially favorable decision can lead to the whole claim being subject to review again, with a different outcome possible upon rehearing.

An experienced Social Security Disability lawyer will not only assist a client in gathering medical evidence and file the claim on his or her behalf, but will also be able to advise a claimant on whether to accept a closed period at a hearing and what the potential outcomes of appealing such a decision could be.