The Clock is Ticking: New York Court Reverses Disability Benefits Decision, Sets Time Limit for SSA to Hold Further Proceedings - Bunger v. Astrue

August 11,2009
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In Bunger v. Astrue, the Eastern District of New York recently took on a case appealing the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) denial of a disability benefits claim: in which both the claimant and the SSA agree that the agency’s decision was flawed.

Plaintiff Richard Bunger filed a claim for Social Security Disability benefits in 2008, asserting that he was no longer able to work as a New York City firefighter due to lumbar degenerative disc disease. The SSA denied the claim and Bunger later appeared before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at an administrative hearing . The ALJ found that although Bunger could not return to his previous job, he retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, including various jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

On appeal, both Bunger and the SSA acknowledged that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical evidence in determining Bunger’s RFC. Specifically, the ALJ gave only “some weight” to the opinion of Bunger’s treating physician, simply stating that the opinion was “conclusory and not supported by the treatment record or the evidence as a whole,” without providing sufficient analysis or explanation. Furthermore, according to the court, the ALJ failed to consider Bunger’s nonexertational limitiations, “despite overwhelming evidence” of them.
The parties disagreed, however, as to how the court should address the ALJ’s failings. Bunger argued that the court should award him benefits and remand the case to the ALJ simply to determine the amount of those benefits, while the SSA asserted that the case should be remanded for further proceedings to determine whether Bunger is even eligible for benefits.

Citing the Second Circuit’s 1980 decision in Pratts v. Harris, the court noted that “[r]emand solely for calculation of benefits is appropriate where ‘the record provides persuasive proof of disability and a remand for further evidentiary proceedings would serve no purpose.'” Remand for further proceedings, however, is appropriate where there are gaps in the administrative record or the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard.

In this case, the court could not establish for certain that Bunger would be eligible for benefits if the ALJ had properly analyzed Bunger’s RFC. As a result, the court ordered that the case be remanded for further proceedings.

The court gave the SSA 60 days to complete the further proceedings and, in the case of a denial, another 60 days to issue a decision on which Bunger could then file a another appeal. “If these deadlines are not met and the delay is not attributable to Bunger, he is deemed disabled and entitled to calculation of benefits,” the court warned.This is a rare order and I think shows the exasperation the Federal Court in cases where even the SSA accepts that errors were made.

As experienced New York Social Security disability lawyers, we often see cases in which an ALJ rejects a treating physician’s opinion for seemingly no good reason. If also denied by the Appeals Council, a claimant’s only recourse is to file suit in Federal Court. Claimants represented by an experienced disability lawyer can be assured that their cases will be handled properly from application through any necessary appeal, including to Federal Court. Non-attorney representatives, on the other hand, are not permitted to appear in federal court.
In many of the cases we take to federal Court we are able to convince the attorneys representing Social Security that significant errors were made, and get them to voluntarily agree to remand the matter for a new hearing. It is not clear from this summary why , if both sides agreed that significant errors were made, the matter went all the way to a decision rather than both sides stipulating to a remand. However the Federal Court order placing a time limit on Social Security’s completion of proceedings on remand is not typically found in a voluntary remand and may have been the Court’s way of telling Social Security they “should have” remanded this voluntarily!