Social Security Disability Denied? Don't Give Up Hope. (Part 1)

Today’s post comes from guest author Barbara Tilker from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

I’ve handled many Social Security disability cases over the course of my career, and helping people obtain the benefits they deserve is extremely gratifying. Today, I want to tell you about one of my clients who was eventually awarded Social Security disability benefits after a long fight.

This man – I’ll call him John – was injured at work. He was bringing a wheelbarrow loaded with materials up a flight of stairs when he slipped and fell down the stairs. He sustained significant back and shoulder injuries and was taken to the hospital that day. When I met with him, he had been out of work for several months and wanted to get back to work, but was unable to do so. I filed his application and waited for Social Security’s initial decision.

Because John was 48 years old when he was injured, I had to prove that he couldn’t do any type of work, not just the construction work he had done since he graduated from high school. John’s case was denied initially, as most cases are. I filed a request for a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and started to develop John’s case.

In addition to his back and shoulder injuries, John was also depressed due to his chronic pain and inability to live his life the way he used to before his accident.

In addition to his back and shoulder injuries, John was also depressed due to his chronic pain and inability to live his life the way he used to before his accident. He started treatment with a psychiatrist and a psychologist. All conditions count in a Social Security disability benefits case, both physical and emotional. 

As his hearing date approached, I obtained updated medical records from all of John’s doctors and obtained supportive opinions from them as well.  Before the hearing, I prepared John for the questions he was likely to face.  Going into the hearing, I felt confident that John would get the benefits he deserved.  However, at the hearing, the ALJ did not seem to feel the case was as strong as I did. I told John to prepare for a denial from the judge.

While reviewing the decision, I noticed that the judge had made several significant errors…

Sure enough, the judge denied John’s claim. While reviewing the decision, I noticed that the judge had made several significant errors, from improperly evaluating the credibility of John’s statements, to giving improper weight to the opinions of his treating doctors. I met with John to review the decision and talk about our options.  Given the number of errors contained in the judge’s decision and the strength of John’s case, we decided to file an appeal with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council, located in Falls Church, Virginia, is charged with reviewing appeals from individuals who disagree with the decision made by the judge at their hearing.

The Appeals Council review process can take anywhere from 18 to 24 months, and only about 20 percent of appeals are successful.  Despite these odds, I felt good about John’s chances due to the support of his treating physicians and the multiple errors made by the judge. I prepared a comprehensive legal brief detailing all of the judge’s errors and sent it to the Appeals Council for review. When I sent the appeal, I felt that the Appeals Council would recognize that the judge had issued a flawed decision and vacate it.  When a judge’s decision is vacated, the case is sent back for a new hearing and a new decision. 

In next week’s post we’ll reveal the outcome of John’s case.