Severe Impairment in Social Security Disability Cases - Parker-Grose v. Astrue

January 20,2009
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One of a handful of factors that the SSA and reviewing judges consider in determining whether a claimant is eligible for Social Security disability benefits is whether the claimant’s impairment(s) is sufficiently severe. In Parker-Grose v. Astrue, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals explains some of the evidence that can be used to meet this requirement.

Plaintiff Mary Jane Parker-Grose filed a claim for Social Security disability benefits, asserting that she’s unable to work due to depression. The Social Security Administration (SSA) initially denied the claim and, following an administrative hearing, an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of obtaining disability benefits. Specifically, the judge determined that Plaintiff’s depression is not sufficiently severe.
In order to find a claimant eligible for Social Security benefits, the SSA or a reviewing judge must find that the claimant suffers from one or more severe impairments. An impairment is severe if it “significantly limits the claimant’s ability to do basic work activities.” The SSA advises claimants “[i]f you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled.” An ALJ considering the severity of a claimant’s impairment must make this decision based on substantial evidence.
In this case, the Second Circuit – which sits in New York City and whose jurisdiction covers New York state, Connecticut and Vermont – reversed the ALJ’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings, ruling that the ALJ’s finding that Plaintiff’s depression is “nonsevere” was not supported by substantial evidence. In so doing, the court noted that the severity requirement is a “de minimis” one aimed at weeding out claims in which a claimant suffers from only minimal impairment.
According to the court, two treating psychologists – Dr. Joseph M. Patalano and Dr. Richard Root II – examined Plaintiff and determined that she suffers from depression. Furthermore, Dr. Root estimated Plaintiff’s “Global Assessment of Functioning” (GAF) score – an assessment of a patient’s overall level of functioning – to be in the range of persons experiencing “moderate symptoms” including “moderate difficulty in school, work, [and] social functioning.” These opinions, the court ruled, proved that Plaintiff’s depression was sufficiently severe.

Since the ALJ considered that Plaintiff suffered from only mild impairment in determining her residual functional capacity (RFC), or ability to perform previous work or other jobs currently available in the national economy, the SSA’s argument that any error by the ALJ was harmless is unavailing, the Second Circuit ruled. “[T]he ALJ failed to account for any functional limitations arising from [Plaintiff’s] depression when determining her RFC,” and as result the court remanded the case for further proceedings.
An experienced Social Security disability attorney can provide important assistance in proving impairment severity as well as the other factors necessary to win a disability case. The lawyer can help gather the necessary documentation, provide it to the SSA and explain a client’s case at an administrative or appellate hearing, if necessary.