Do Administrative Law Judges follow the rules when deciding claims? Not always.
The Social Security Act and Social Security Administration regulations require that when a decision of disability is made by the Agency, they must consider all of the available evidence in a claimant's case record. This includes medical records, statements and opinions from medical sources, as well as statements by the claimant and others about the claimant's impairment.
One would think that the Social Security Administration, particularly Administrative Law Judges, would follow Agency rules when deciding cases. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It is not uncommon to find that a Judge has given no consideration to particular evidence in a case record when issuing a decision. This is obviously problematic when that evidence supports a finding that the claimant is disabled.
Two recent cases which we briefed for appeals in United States District Court offer examples of Judges who ignored evidence that could have made a difference in the decision as to whether the claimant was disabled.
In one case, a Judge stated in the Denial that our client was not credible (in other words, the Judge did not believe the client's description of his limitations) because the case record "did not contain any statements from family members, friends, or co-workers in support of disability." However, the case record actually contained FOUR such statements, written by family members and acquaintances who knew the claimant and who provided descriptions of the claimant's significant limitations. In other words, the Judge discredited our client when it was the Judge himself who made a mistake and failed to make note of multiple supportive statements in the record.
An even more egregious example is a case where a Judge failed to acknowledge the presence of not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE reports from different psychologists which all stated that our client had significant mental health limitations on his ability to work. These were reports either from doctors that Social Security themselves had hired to examine our client, or from doctors that were employed by the State agency Social Security contracts with to review medical evidence and to make decisions on cases. Not only do Social Security's regulations require an ALJ to consider all the evidence in the record, there are regulations which emphasize how important it is to consider every medical opinion in a case, particularly the opinions of State agency consultants who are deemed to be "experts in the Social Security programs." Judges are specifically admonished that they "may not ignore these opinions." (Social Security Ruling 96-9p)
Judges are human beings, and human beings make mistakes. But when these mistakes result in a denial of benefits to deserving people, these mistakes need to be answered for. At Cutter Hall Karlock we are prepared to hold the Social Security Administration accountable for the mistakes made by the human beings they employ.