Many of the Social Security Disability cases we discuss on this blog concern the main issue in a disability benefits claim: whether or not the person seeking benefits can still work, despite his or her impairments. Or, in the parlance of the gatekeepers at the Social Security Administration (SSA), whether the claimant is “disabled” for benefits purposes. In a case where a person is claiming disability based on more than one impairment, an early error in determining the debilitative effects of each impairment often results in a bigger mistake in ultimately ruling whether the claimant can work. In Fatum v. Commissioner of Social Security, a federal court in Michigan considers one of those cases.

Mark Fatum filed a claim for disability benefits, asserting that he is unable to work due to a number of impairments, including one affecting his vision. The SSA denied the claim initially and on reconsideration. Fatum later appeared at an administrative hearing before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

The ALJ found that Fatum was not disabled for benefits purposes because he retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform certain limited work with restrictions, including that he stay away from machinery and unprotected heights. A vocational expert (VE) testified at the hearing that a hypothetical person under these restrictions and with the same experience and education as Fatum could still perform jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy.

On appeal, a federal magistrate recommended that the ALJ’s decsion be reversed because it was not supported by substantial evidence. The district court for the Western District of Michigan adopted the recommendation, finding that the ALJ failed to adequately account for Fatum’s visual impairment in reaching the decision.

“There is no dispute that the ALJ failed to expressly account for the visual impairment,” the Court explained. Rather, the SSA argued that this failure was not material because the visual impairment did not affect Fatum’s ability to work. The Court rejected this argument, finding that the ALJ’s failure to account for the vision impairment rendered the hypothetical questions the ALJ posed to the VE inapplicable to Fatum’s claim. “The vocational expert’s testimony was premised on a faulty RFC determination,” the Court ruled.
As a result, the Court reversed the ALJ’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.
As this case makes clear, an error anywhere in the decision making process is like a falling domino that can taint the ultimate outcome of a Social Security disability case.

An experienced disability lawyer can provide vital assistance in this process. A competent attorney will not only assist a claimant in gathering medical evidence and file the claim on his or her behalf, but also follow up throughout the claims process to ensure that the SSA has all of information and documentation it needs to decide on the claim. If a hearing is necessary, disability attorneys who have received advocacy training are much more likely to persuade judges who might be on the fence over how to interpret certain evidence in the claims record.