Proving impairment severity is vital in the Social Security Disability Decision Process

May 27,2014
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While a Social Security Disability claim is generally won or lost based on the ultimate determination of whether or not the claimant can work, there is a detailed sequential analysis that must be performed prior to reaching this decision. Step two of this analysis concerns the severity of the claimant’s physical or mental impairments. In Boone v. Commissioner, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas reverses a disability decision for failure to adequately carry out this step.

Clarence Boone filed a claim for Disability benefits, asserting that he’s unable to work due to a number of impairments, including HIV, depression, asthma, degenerative disc disease, hypertension and bipolar disorder. The Social Security Administration (SSA) initially denied Boone’s claim and he later appeared at two administrative hearings conducted by an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Following the second hearing, the ALJ issued an opinion deciding that Boone was not disabled for benefits purposes. Although he suffered from severe impairments – HIV, DDD and depression – Boone retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform certain light to medium work, including jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, according to the ALJ decision.
On appeal, the district court found that the ALJ erred at step two of his analysis, in which he determined the severity of Boone’s impairments. SSA regulations state that a “severe impairment” is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits (a claimant’s) physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” However, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Stone v. Heckler that “only if it is a slight abnormality (having) such minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual’s ability to work,” will an impairment be considered non-severe. The court further ruled that an ALJ opinion that does not specifically reference and apply the Stone standard must be reversed and remanded.
In the current case, the district court found no indication that the ALJ used the Stone standard in determining the severity of Boone’s alleged impairments. Indeed, the ALJ failed to even mention a number of Boone’s physical impairments in the step two determination. For instance, Boone tested positive for hepatitis, suffered from decreased appetite and weight loss, and was diagnosed with COPD and chronic bronchitis. Thus, the ALJ could not have considered the combined effect of each of these impairments, as required, the court concluded.
As a result the court reversed the ALJ’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The court also took the somewhat unusual step of ruling that the case should be assigned to a new ALJ, noting that this was the second time the previous ALJ’s step two finding had been rejected in this case (the first was by the SSA’s Appeals Council).

The key to proving impairment severity is clear and convincing medical evidence. In addition to filing the claim, a Social Security disability lawyer can assist a claimant in gathering the required documentation and information. The lawyer can also represent the claimant at an ALJ hearing and on federal appeal, if necessary.

Related blog posts:

Severe Impairment in Social Security Disability Cases – Parker-Grose v. Astrue
A Good Social Security Lawyer Doesn’t Allow Reasonable Minds to Differ – Smith v. Astrue
Social Security Judges Must Take All of a Claimant’s Limitations into Account – March v. Commissioner of Social Security