Medical Opinions in Social Security Disability Cases - Morinskey v. Astrue

October 08,2008
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The Social Security Administration (SSA) initially denies roughly 65 percent of all Social Security disability benefits claims nationwide. For those applicants who don’t give up – the most important step is a hearing before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The medical evidence provided to show that the claimant is fact disabled is a major factor in determining whether someone is disabled. A judge reviewing this evidence retains a fair amount of discretion in weighing the opinions of various medical professionals. Yet, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal explains in Morinskey v. Astrue, a judge that disregards or simply ignores an opinion must provide an explanation for doing so.
Social Secuirty denied Plaintiff Donald H. Morinskey’s application for Social Security disability benefits – asserting that he’s unable to work due to bi-polar disorder – and an SSA ALJ upheld this decision after a hearing. The ALJ found that, despite certain limitations related to his mental impairment,Morinskey retained the ability to work in certain “low stress” jobs available in the national economy. A federal district court also upheld the denial.
On further appeal, however, the Ninth Circuit reversed the ALJ’s decision and remanded the case to the ALJ to order the payment of benefits. The court found that the ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, according to the court, the ALJ failed to properly explain his decision to disregard the medical opinion of an examining consultant. “An ALJ is required to state ‘specific and legitimate’ reasons to explain why his conclusions outweigh the doctor’s opinion,” the court stated. Yet while the ALJ gave great weight to certain portions of the opinion proffered by Dr. McNairn, an examining consultant hired by the SSA, it disregarded a crucial part of the opinion without analysis or discussion: McNairn’s finding that Plaintiff’s “abilities to maintain regular attendance, to sustain an ordinary routine, and to complete a normal work day or week without interruption from his bi-polar disorder were moderately impaired.”
Not only did the ALJ fail to properly explain the decision to ignore this part of McNairn’s opinion, but it also appears that the decision was erroneous. The court noted that McNairn’s findings were consistent with the “overwhelming evidence” from Plaintiff’s various treating physicians. There are even Social Security Rulings that direct how the ALJ is supposed to evaluate these opinions from their own doctors.
Thus, rather than remanding the case to the ALJ in order to properly explain the decision to ignore McNairn’s opinion, the court instead directed the ALJ to approve Plaintiff’s Social Security disability claim and award benefits.

As this case makes clear, medical evidence is central to proving a Social Security disability claim. An experienced Social Security disability lawyer 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 the necessary information and documentation. 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 and to point out what weight they are required. to give certain evidence.