New York Court Reverses Social Security Disability Decision for Failure to Undertake "Special Technique" - Charlton v. Commissioner of Social Security

September 29,2009
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The law requires the Social Security Administration and its judges to make very specific findings in considering the severity of any impairments suffered by a person seeking Disability benefits. In Charlton v. Commissioner of Social Security, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York explains that it simply can’t decide whether an SSA decision on a claim is justified where the agency hasn’t performed the required analysis.

Mr. Charlton filed a claim for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income in April 2010. He claimed that he had been disabled since early September 2009, as a result of mental impairments including intermittent explosive disorder, depression and anxiety. The first of these impairments is characterized by repeated episodes of impulsive, aggressive and violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts. The SSA initially denied the claim. Following a hearing, an SSA Administrative Law Judge found that Charlton was not disabled for benefits purposes because his impairments were not sufficiently severe.

On appeal, the District Court disagreed with the ALJ.

The court explained “An ALJ’s evaluation of a claimant’s mental impairments must reflect his application of the ‘special technique’ set out in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a, which necessitates his consideration of four broad functional areas that include: activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation.” Decompensation refers to specific instances in which the claimant experiences an increase in symptoms and a loss of function. If each of the first three categories are considered mild or nonexistent and the claimant does not suffer from decompensation, the impairment will typically be considered non-severe.

Here, the court found that the ALJ failed to undertake this analysis with respect to Charlton’s intermittent explosive disorder by rating his degree of limitation in the four broad functional areas. Instead, the judge noted that Charlton had sought treatment for the impairment and had been able to control the symptoms with medication. In addition, a psychologist hired by SSA to review the claim testified that Charlton’s impairments were not severe, without referencing the functional categories.

As a result, the court said that it could not meaningfully review the ALJ’s decision to determine whether it was supported by substantial evidence. “Notably, at least some evidence in the record indicates that Charlton’s limitations were more than mild,” the court explained, referring to a 2010 psychiatric evaluation in which Charlton was given a Global Assessment of Functioning score of 60. That score indicates moderate difficulty in social, occupational or school functioning.

The District Court reversed the ALJ’s decision and remanded the case back to the ALJ for further proceedings.

If you or a loved one is considering seeking disability benefits, contact the New York Social Security Disability lawyers at Hermann Law Group, PLLC. Our attorneys prepare claims on behalf of clients, follow up throughout the claims process to ensure that the SSA has all of the necessary information and represent clients in hearings and on appeal when necessary. Representing clients throughout New York, as well as in New Jersey and Connecticut, we focus exclusively on disability cases and are dedicated to helping clients obtain the benefits they deserve.