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Morgan, Jr. v. Colvin: ALJ Hearing Process in Disability Cases

In, Morgan, Jr. v. Colvin, a case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, claimant applied for both Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Claimant became disabled after he suffered a serious injury. He was working as an auto glass technician and was replacing a window on a semi tractor-trailer cab when he fell off and hit the ground. When he fell, he injured his back, shoulder and legs and was unable to work.

When he applied for disability benefits, the United States Social Security Administration (SSA) denied his application for benefits. SSA is the federal agency that runs disability programs. Following his initial denial, he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). An ALJ is supposed to be an independent judge who hears both sides of the case and decides if claimant is disabled. However, since SSA employs all ALJs, and they have offices at SSA facilities, it is not surprising that more often than not, they side with SSA and deny benefits.

At the hearing, one ALJ heard all the evidence, and then the chief ALJ issued the order. This is highly unusual, because the same judge that hears the case is supposed to make a final determination. In cases where the hearing judge is no longer available, the record should explain why a different judge made the final determination. In this case, there was no explanation given as to why this occurred.

As part of his findings, chief ALJ determined claimant had not engaged in any type of gainful activity since he first declared he was disabled. He also found claimant suffered from a back disorder and would be unable to perform his duties as an auto glass technician. However, ALJ further determined claimant had a residual functioning capacity (RFC) that allowed him to work at many jobs in the national and local economies, including dining room attendant, industrial cleaner, and cafeteria attendant.

The reason these jobs sound strange is because the ALJs use the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), which was first created in the 1970s and has changed very little since that time. It is for this reason that it is always best to consult with an experienced Boston disability attorney as early in the process as possible.

In Morgan Jr., claimant appealed to the SSA’s Appeals Council, but his appeal was denied. At this point, he filed a complaint in federal district court.   The district court denied claimant’s appeal, and he appealed to the circuit court.

In his appeal, claimant made several arguments to challenge the ALJ’s ruling. The court was only concerned with the second of six arguments, because that one was enough to warrant remand of the case.   The primary issue was that administrative agencies must follow their own procedures in order for any of their decisions to be binding. In this case, the ALJ who heard a case was required to the be the same ALJ who issued the final order, unless there a reason the first ALJ was not able to make the final determination.

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

Additional Resources:

Morgan, Jr. v. Colvin, October 21, 2015, United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

More Blog Entries:
Hanson v. Colvin: A Critical Look by a Court of Appeals on a Denial of Benefits, August 14, 2014, Boston Disability Lawyers Blog.