Bipolar disorder is a serious mental impairment that can affect every aspect of a person’s day-to-day life, including his or her ability to work. In Bohn v. Commissioner of Social Security, the District Court for the Northern District of New York examined a case in which the Social Security Administration (SSA) appeared not to understand the severity of the disorder. While troubling, it is a good example of why a person whose claim is initially denied should allow the process to play out.

Plaintiff Katie Bohn filed a Social Security Disability benefits claim, asserting that she remained unable to work due to a number of impairments, including bipolar disorder, panic disorder, opiate and alcohol dependence and obesity. She was a 29-year-old high school graduate at the time and had previously worked part-time as at a convenience store and ice cream shop, as well as a 6-month stint as a nurse’s aide.

According to the Court, Plaintiff’s mental impairments were “attributed at least in part to having been raped at the age of fourteen, her involvement in several physically abusive relationships, and having been traumatized as a teenager by the death of her five-year-old sister in a house fire.” She was hospitalized a number of times after attempting to commit suicide.

Nevertheless, the Social Security Administration (SSA) initially denied Plaintiff’s benefits claim. She later appeared before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at an administrative hearing. The ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled for benefits purposes because, although she suffered from severe impairments, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to work in a low stress environment at all exertion levels. Applying the RFC finding to the SSA’s medical-vocational guidelines (grids), the Court found there were sufficient jobs in the national economy which Plaintiff could still perform.

On appeal, the district court recommended the ALJ’s decision be reversed, finding – among other errors – that the judge failed to properly take into account the non-exertional limitations caused by Plaintiff’s impairments. “Plaintiff’s bipolar disorder is well-diagnosed, and the intensive treatment she has received over time is amply chronicled in her medical records,” the Court ruled. In particular, according to the Court, Plaintiff’s repeated hospitalizations, history of cutting herself to relieve tension and numerous unsuccessful part-time employment attempts were clear signs of her inability to maintain a job due to her impairment. Furthermore, agency psychological review showed that Plaintiff’s ability to understand and remember detailed instructions was substantially limited, and that she was moderately limited in 10 of 19 other work-related functions.

As a result, the Court recommended that the ALJ’s decision be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

It boggles the mind that Plaintiff’s claim could have been denied twice by the SSA, given her clearly debilitating impairment. Anyone who suffers from bipolar disorder knows how incapacitating the condition can be when it comes to daily activities, including work. That said, this case is a good example of how complicated and frustrating the Social Security Disability claims process can be. An experienced Social Security Disability attorney can assist a client every step of the way, gathering the evidence necessary to prove the claim (including medical and employment records ), following up with SSA staff to ensure that it has the information necessary to rule on the claim and representing the client at hearing or in a federal appeal, if necessary.