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Goins v. Colvin: One Appellate Judge’s Look at How Things Work at the SSA

Our Massachusetts Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) lawyers understand the importance of keeping up with recent appellate decisions in this area of law. More than a few of the blog entries we have written involve decisions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Those decisions have often taken the side of the claimant who applied for benefits and were often very critical of the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) who denied the SSDI claims at issue.

gavel7.jpgOn this appellate court sits Judge Richard Posner, who appears to be leading the charge against the denial of disability claims. A new article from the American Bar Association examines whether this is becoming a trend.

The article looks at one decision, Goins v. Colvin, to illustrate their theory. This opinion was filed two weeks after oral arguments, which is an incredibly quick turnaround for a court of appeals to release an opinion.

Goins involved a claimant with a degenerative disc disease, stenosis, and a condition that causes brain tissue to extend into her spinal canal. As a result of these conditions, the claimant could no longer work at her cafeteria job, as it was too strenuous and painful. She rated her pain between an eight and a nine out of ten. She testified that, due to pain and her required prescriptions, she could only eat, take care of her pets, sleep and watch TV. The ALJ found that she was exaggerating her medical issues and physical limitations and denied her claim for benefits.

In the appeal, Judge Posner wrote that he reversed the ALJ’s denial of benefits and stated that he disagreed with the two doctors who were hired by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to evaluate her claim. One of these doctors was an anesthesiologist who opined that the woman could lift 50 pounds objects nearly half of her workday and could crouch and perform other physical maneuvers. There was no logical reason given for these conclusions, and the other doctor, a pediatrician, agreed with the anesthesiologist. Neither doctor had ever met the woman or looked at an MRI of her head that showed the brain tissue disorder.

It should be noted that these doctors are supposed to be independent of the SSA and present an unbiased opinion. While doctors are not employees of the SSA, they are contracted by the administration to perform evaluations and give testimony. If a doctor routinely found that the claimant was disabled, it is unlikely that they would be given much work from the SSA in the future, so they have a financial incentive to find that there is no disability.

Judge Poser also criticized the judge for “playing doctor,” ignoring the MRI, and making a finding that was not supported by the evidence before him. He then went on to further criticize the ALJ and the SSA.

This all seems to the be the unfortunate result of a system that is running out of money putting more effort into denying claims and saving money than making sure people who are in need of benefits are able to access them.

If you are seeking Social Security Disability Insurance in Boston, call for a free and confidential appointment at 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

Posner opinion takes aim at denial of disability benefits; is it a 7th Circuit trend?, August 21, 2014, ABA Journal

More Blog Entries:

Boley v. Colvin: On SSDI Adjudication Procedures, August 21, 2014, Boston Disability Lawyers Blog