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Dominguez v. Colvin: Social Security Disability Denials

Dominguez v. Colvin, a case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, involved a plaintiff who applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and the United States Social Security Administration (SSA) denied her claim.

1033916_medical_instruments_3On her initial application for Social Security disability benefits, plaintiff stated she was disabled because she suffered from agoraphobia, gastroparesis, back pain, morbid obesity, dementia, and carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Her application was denied on a finding that she was not in fact disabled.

After her application was denied, she applied for reconsideration and was eventually granted a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), and the ALJ denied her application again. Pursuant to the Social Security disability regulations, in order to make a finding that a claimant is disabled, ALJ is required to use a five-step test. This includes whether claimant did or did not perform substantial gainful activity during the period of disability, whether the impairments are severe, whether the impairments meet the specific conditions listed in the disability regulations, or if not, whether any combination of disability conditions does. If the three prongs of the five-part test are met, then the ALJ will look to the residual functioning capacity (RFC) of claimant.

Residual functioning capacity means that a claimant still has an ability to work. This is a rather confusing issue. This has nothing to do with the type of work claimant did before becoming disabled. The ALJ will use a book from the 1970s called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), that includes outdated descriptions of jobs that pay very little.

In this case, ALJ determined claimant has not worked since June 2009. He then determined that her morbid obesity and carpal tunnel syndrome when taken together satisfy the severity requirement under the law. However, with respect to the third phase of the five-part test, he found they did not meet the requirements in the listing to qualify for a disability. He found she had an RFC allowing her to perform light work, and there is the real problem, he determined she was not credible when describing her level of pain and inability to work. ALJ also rejected the treating physician plaintiff asked to testify during the hearing. ALJ discredited his testimony as well. Plaintiff appealed to the United States District Court and that court remanded the case for further proceedings with the ALJ. SSA appealed this and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court.

An ALJ is allowed to discredit the testimony of a doctor or any witness, but there must be a sufficient record established to show that evidence supports a decision to discredit. In other words, if judge says someone is not telling the truth, he or she must show in the evidence how such a finding is proper. Failing to do is a reversible error. There is a presumption that the treating physician is credible, but that can be overcome if the weight of the evidence so supports an adverse finding.

These can be very complicated issues and the reason you should always contact an experienced Boston Social Security disability attorney before filing for a hearing before an ALJ.

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:

Dominguez v. Colvin, December 16, 2015, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth 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.