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September 9, 2016

“Off task” at work – does it matter at my Social Security disability hearing?

Social Security disability hearings can be confusing – the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), your attorney, and the experts use a lot of jargon that may make it sound like they are speaking a completely new language.  The basic issue that all of these people are discussing is whether you can perform the duties of a full-time job.  However, Social Security’s rules require that the ALJ provide a detailed explanation of why he or she thinks you can or cannot work.  The ALJ must determine your “residual functional capacity” (RFC), which is a description of what kinds of work-like activities, if any, you are able to perform in spite of your impairments.  The judge must specifically address all the different physical and mental limitations you have. The elements of your physical residual functional capacity – your ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, reach, stoop, etc. – are pretty self-explanatory.  The judge must assess how much of an eight-hour work day you are able to do each of these things.  However, as you probably know well, your medical conditions cause problems in many more areas than just your ability to do physical activities.  If you have pain, mental health diagnoses, or medication side effects, you likely have difficulty with mental tasks as well.  Your skills in concentrating, solving problems, and interacting with others are just as vital to your ability to keep a job as your physical capabilities are. Unfortunately, though, it can be difficult to describe how mental limitations affect your ability to work.  Here are some ways you may notice that your mental limitations affect your daily life: You have difficulty sitting through an entire TV show or reading a whole magazine article because your back pain bothers you so much. You start lots of projects, but you never finish … Continued

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July 7, 2016

Do I have a good Social Security disability case?

I hear this question probably more than any other question from my clients.  When I was in law school, one of my professors told me, “The facts always matter,” and a Social Security disability case is no exception.  It’s also important to know how Social Security applies its rules to the facts of your case when you are trying to show that you are unable to work.  While there are many variables that affect your chances of winning your claim, I have found that some factors are more important than the others. Medical treatment: One of the first things I ask potential clients is whether or not they are seeing doctors.  In order to find that you are disabled, Social Security must be able to find that you have a medically determinable impairment that affects your ability to work.   You must also have medical records that support the statements you make about how badly your symptoms affect you.  You can’t assume that the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at your hearing will know that you are a trustworthy person who doesn’t exaggerate.  Even if the ALJ does find that you are a credible person, he or she will still want to see objective testing (like x-rays or MRIs) and/or progress notes from your physician that back up your testimony.  The ALJ will want proof that you are being treated by doctors who specialize in your type of impairments – for example, that you are seeing an orthopedic doctor if you have degenerative disc disease, a rheumatologist if you have fibromyalgia, a psychiatrist if you have bipolar disorder, or a neurologist if you have migraine headaches.  If your doctor is willing to provide a written statement about your work-related limitations, it can also improve your chances of a favorable outcome. Age, education, and work experience: … Continued

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June 9, 2016

Anatomy of a Social Security Disability Hearing Part III: The Decision

When the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) makes a determination about your disability claim, he or she does not simply send you a letter that says “Congratulations! You have been found disabled!” or “Sorry, but you do not qualify for disability.”  The Social Security Administration (SSA) requires the ALJ to provide you with a thorough explanation of the decision.  When you get your hearing decision letter, the first part will briefly tell you whether you won or lost.  Attached to that letter will be the actual decision, which is typically about five to fifteen pages long.  The overall document is a little overwhelming, so here is a breakdown of the different parts: Jurisdiction and Procedural History This part of the decision summarizes the technical details about the case, including: The type of benefits for which you applied (Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income) The dates of your application, denials, and appeals requests The names of the attorney and any experts who appeared at the hearing A summary of anything that happened after the hearing (e.g., additional evidence added to the record) Any other procedural issues Issues This part of the decision recites the definition of disability according to Social Security’s rules.  If you have a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claim, it will also discuss your Date Last Insured (DLI).  The final sentence of this section is a statement of whether the judge did or did not find that you are disabled under Social Security’s rules. Applicable Law This part of the decision is complete “boilerplate” – that is, it is a generic description that doesn’t contain any details unique to your case.  Every decision from every ALJ contains this language.  This section describes the five-step sequential evaluation that the judge must follow in making a decision.  It also … Continued

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May 27, 2016

Anatomy of a Social Security Hearing Decision Part II: Approval of the fee agreement

If you were represented at your disability hearing by an attorney or qualified representative, your favorable Social Security hearing decision will contain an “Order of Administrative Law Judge” either approving or disapproving your fee agreement.  That order also explains that you have fifteen days to respond to the judge if you do not agree with his or her order.  Some of my clients, after reading this order, call me because they are worried that they need to respond in order for their case to move forward.  Fortunately for them, though, this language is just another part of Social Security’s form letter.  I explain to them that if they are still willing to hold to their end of the fee agreement, they don’t have to do anything. Social Security has rules about how much an attorney can charge you for his or her services related to your Social Security disability case.  When you hired your attorney, you most likely signed a fee agreement that said you only had to pay your attorney if you were awarded benefits and received back pay.  Under Social Security’s rules, your attorney can typically charge 25% of your back pay, but no more than $6,000.  If you have an attorney who regularly practices Social Security disability law, the attorney probably has an agreement with Social Security that allows him to receive his fees directly from Social Security.  That way, neither you nor your attorney has to worry about calculating the amount of the fee and ensuring timely payment. However, that direct payment of fees can only occur if Social Security finds that your fee agreement complies with Social Security’s rules.  Therefore, when an Administrative Law Judge finds a claimant disabled, he or she must then review the fee agreement to make sure it is in compliance.  … Continued

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May 20, 2016

Anatomy of a Social Security Hearing Decision Part I: How do I know if I won?

If you have a Social Security disability hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), you probably will leave the hearing without knowing whether you won or not.  Most claimants have to wait between thirty and ninety days to receive the ALJ’s decision in the mail.  (Sometimes it can take even longer if the judge needs to get additional information.) When you receive your decision and look it over, you still might have trouble telling whether you won or not!  The decisions have a lot of information in them, and it can be hard at first glance to figure out what’s important.  The first page of your decision will look something like this:     The first clue you have about the outcome of your case is the title at the top.  There are four possibilities: Notice of Decision – Fully Favorable:  Congratulations!  You won!  A “fully favorable” decision means that the ALJ found that you became disabled as of your alleged onset date and continue to be disabled.  An ALJ also issues a favorable decision when the claimant agrees at the hearing to change his or her alleged onset date or to accept a closed period of disability. Notice of Decision – Partially Favorable:  This decision is typically mostly good news, but not always.  In short, a partially favorable decision is one in which the judge found that you are (or were) disabled for some of the time since your alleged onset date, but not for all of that time.  If you received a “partially favorable” decision, it could mean one of two things: The judge gave you a closed period of disability.  In other words, the ALJ found that you became disabled as of your alleged onset date (or at a point later in time) but also … Continued

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May 17, 2016

The Indianapolis Office of Disability Adjudication and Review

Most people who apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) end up having to go to a hearing if they pursue their claim after the initial denial.  If you live in central Indiana and have a hearing, you will likely end up at the Indianapolis hearings office. The address of the Indianapolis Office of Disability, Adjudication, and Review (ODAR) office is 151 N. Delaware Street, Room 400, Indianapolis, Indiana, 46204.  The hearing office is in Market Square Center, but most people call it the “Gold Building” due to the gold glass windows on the outside of the building.  There is metered street parking and a parking garage east of the building.   You should plan to bring money to pay for parking; Social Security does not validate parking for you.  Once inside the building, take the elevators to the fourth floor. When exiting the elevators, look to your left and you will see a security officer. It is important to remember that the hearing office is a federal facility, so certain rules apply.  The security officer will ask to see valid photo identification, such as a drivers’ license or state ID card.  Make sure your license or ID card is not expired!  If it is, the judge may postpone your hearing until you obtain valid identification.  The security officer will also scan everyone entering the office with a metal detection wand.  It is important that you do not attempt to bring in guns, knives, or other sharp objects that could be used as weapons.  Once you are cleared by security you should check in at the window and have a seat in the waiting area. The Social Security Administration (SSA) employs Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to preside over the hearings.  The judges are men and women … Continued

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April 11, 2016

What are ADLs, and why does Social Security care so much if I go on vacation or keep my house clean?

Many of my clients do not understand why the Social Security Administration (SSA) is so interested in their day-to-day activities.  It might help to think about it this way: since you are not able to work, Social Security can’t ask you how your current symptoms affect your work activities.  Therefore, they have to look instead at what you are actually able (or unable) to do in your daily life.  Social Security refers to these things as your “Activities of Daily Living,” or ADLs. During the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) application process, Social Security sends each claimant a questionnaire called an Adult Function Report.  This form asks specific questions about how your impairments affect your ability to do what you need to do to get through a typical day.  Similarly, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at your hearing will ask questions about your ADLs, including your ability to: Clean your house (sweep, mop, dust, wash dishes, etc.) Shop for groceries Take care of your yard Drive a car Bathe, shower, and take care of your personal hygiene Dress yourself Do laundry Cook or prepare meals Care for children, other family members, or pets Participate in hobbies Spend time with friends Travel on vacations When you answer questions about your ADLs, it’s important to keep in mind why Social Security is asking them.  The ALJ is not trying to find out of you are a conscientious housekeeper or if you are an interesting person to hang out with.  It can be really hard – embarrassing, even – to admit that you aren’t able to take a shower or wash your dishes as often as you think you should.  It is painful for a lot of my clients to realize that it has been years since they … Continued

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September 28, 2015

Do I Need an Attorney at My Social Security Disability Hearing?

At a recent Social Security disability hearing in Indianapolis, I brought one of my employees along to observe.  When I asked my employee for his impressions after the hearing, he said, “I can see why it’s so important to have an attorney with you at your hearing!”  Since I represent claimants at hundreds of these hearings every year, I have forgotten what it’s like to walk into the hearing room having no idea what is going to happen.  I hadn’t realized all of the little things (and some big things) an attorney can do to maximize the effectiveness of your Social Security disability hearing.  Here are a few reasons why I believe it may be in your best interest to hire an attorney or representative to assist you in your Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) claim. Your attorney can ask you questions the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) did not ask.  Without the aid of a lawyer you may be limited to answering only the questions the ALJ asks.  For instance, if you are alone at your hearing and the judge is concentrating on your bad knee when your real problem is your back, the judge may not let you discuss your back as much as you would like.  You may take for granted the judge knows about your back problems when he/she does not.  An attorney who has discussed your case with you and who knows your medical records may be able to give you the chance to testify about issues the judge may have missed when reviewing your file.  The ALJs and their staff do their best to be prepared for your hearing, but sometimes your medical file does not paint a full picture of all of your impairments.  This is especially true if … Continued

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August 31, 2015

Being Truthful at Your Social Security Disability Hearing

You may have heard about the guy who leaves his Social Security disability hearing in a wheelchair, throws the wheelchair in the trunk of his car, and walks easily down the street.  Is this an urban legend, or do things like this really happen?  As an Indianapolis Social Security disability attorney I have never seen someone fake an impairment like that at a hearing.  I have had clients ask me, though, whether they should use or wear their assistive devices at their hearing.  My answer is always the same: if the hearing is a situation in which you would normally use your assistive device, by all means use it at the hearing.  Otherwise, leave it at home. Your credibility with the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at your hearing is very important.  In my experience, if the ALJ thinks you are untruthful about one thing, he may not believe anything else you say either.  Sometimes my clients are worried that the judge won’t be able to see how disabled they are if they don’t make a big deal out of their symptoms.  They go in to the hearing room acting as if it is the sickest day they have ever had.  Believe me, this type of behavior almost always give the ALJ the opposite impression – that the claimant is making things up.  For example, the judge may ask a claimant to rate her pain on a pain scale, where 0 is no pain at all, and 10 is pain so bad that she has to go to the hospital.  I have heard clients tell the judge that the pain they are experiencing during the hearing is a 10.  Obviously, they are not in the hospital; they are sitting in front of the ALJ at the hearing.  In my experience, it … Continued

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July 2, 2015

Will Hiring An Attorney Speed Up My Case?

Many Social Security disability claimants are under the impression that hiring an attorney will speed up the processing of their case with the Social Security Administration (SSA).  While hiring an attorney does not directly translate into a claim being processed more quickly by the SSA, there are many benefits of having an attorney on your case. Benefits at the Initial Application Stage Getting an attorney representative to help you with your initial application for benefits may help your chances of being found disabled.  As most disability claimants and attorneys know, the majority of people are denied on their initial application.  However, some benefits of our office helping a claimant complete an initial application may include: Helping you obtain a medical source statement from your doctor by providing questionnaires designed to get your doctor’s opinions on specific issues Social Security addresses: Social Security is supposed to give great weight to the opinions of your treating medical providers. Updating Social Security about changes in your condition and treatment: the more complete the medical records Social Security has, the more likely it will have enough evidence to make a favorable decision. Ensuring your application is complete: the application can be overwhelming to someone who has never done it before, but we are able to walk you through and ensure you provide complete and accurate information. Submitting medical records in support of your claim: while Social Security typically requests all of your medical records at the initial application stage, we are able to help follow up with providers Social Security cannot reach. Keeping track of your claim to make sure it is processed in a timely manner: we regularly follow up on each claim to make sure Social Security has everything it needs and to make sure the case is moving forward. While Social … Continued

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