Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Case Gives Insight on Social Security Disability Determinations

At an administrative hearing for Social Security Disability, the administrative law judge (ALJ) may hear from a vocational expert (VE) to help determine whether or not the applicant qualifies for SSDI benefits. The vocational expert provides impartial expert opinion evidence that gives insight on the physical and mental demands of a job, the work setting, the type of labor performed in a certain job, and whether certain skill sets are transferable. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals case Gieseke v. Colvin (No. 14-1395) reveals the effect a VE’s opinion can have on an SSDI claim.

In Gieseke, the claimant suffered a long history of low back pain, which worsened following a work injury. The claimant went to physical therapy and returned to work with restrictions for several more months. He applied for disability, citing the lower back issues, leg problems, and dizziness as reasons he could not work. At the hearing, the ALJ found that he had a history of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obesity, and a history of substance abuse. Regarding his physical abilities, the judge found that while he was unable to perform his past relevant duties, his residual functional capacity (RFC) showed he had the ability to perform light work. The ALJ made these determinations based on the VE’s testimony and found that the claimant could work as a cashier, security guard, or usher. Since the claimant had the ability to work, his SSDI benefits were denied.

On appeal, the claimant argued that the ALJ did not give enough weight to the testimony of the claimant’s treating physician. The claimant’s physician testified that he was limited to lifting less than 10 pounds occasionally or frequently, standing for less than two hours a workday, frequently changing seated positions during the workday, and never climbing, crouching, stooping, crawling, or kneeling. This contrasted with the ALJ’s finding he could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally, lift and carry 10 pounds frequently, stand and sit for six hours a day, and sometimes balance, stoop, crawl, kneel, or crouch. The treating physician’s assessment would have limited the claimant’s ability to do almost any type of sedentary work.

The appeals court ruled that the treating physician’s testimony was not supported by the objective medical evidence in the administrative record. The degenerative lumbar disc disease claimed did not require surgery, and evidence showed that the claimant had a normally aligned spine. The state agency medical advisers said that the treating physician based his opinions on minimal exams and that the imaging did not support his conclusions. The appellate court looked at previous case law, which established the Commissioner has the burden of proving the claimant is able to adjust to other work. If an unexplained conflict exists between the evidence provided by various parties, an additional hearing is required. In this case, the Court of Appeals agreed that there was no conflicting evidence, so there was no need for an additional hearing. The denial of benefits was affirmed.

The Massachusetts Social Security attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan can help you with your claim. For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office today at 508.822.6600.

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