Evaluation of Disabling Impairments in California

When is an impairment disabling in a California Social Security Disability case? It can be challenging for a claimant to establish that a particular impairment is disabling, and sometimes an administrative law judge will find that certain impairments are disabling, while others are not. The finding must be more than a harmless error for a district court to overturn the administrative law judge’s decision.

In a recent case arising in the Eastern District of California, the court considered a headache impairment. The court explained the five-step sequence used to evaluate disability. It noted that to qualify for benefits, a claimant needs to establish that he or she wasn’t able to be involved in substantial gainful activity because of a mental or physical impairment that could be medically determined and that had lasted or is anticipated to last at least 12 continuous months. It’s on the claimant to prove the initial disability, and then the Commissioner has the onus of proving the claimant is able to do other jobs that exist in the national economy.

In this case, the plaintiff claimed that disability started in 2010. His social security disability claim was denied at first. At an administrative hearing, the administrative law judge decided he wasn’t disabled because he had mild scoliosis and thoracic and lumbar degenerative disc disease but didn’t have an impairment that met or medically equaled one of the regulation-listed impairments. Additionally, he had residual functional capacity in that he could perform light work. There were jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform.

When the Appeals Council decided not to review, the plaintiff appealed to the district court. He argued that it was an error for the administrative law judge to find that his headaches and anxiety weren’t severe and thus, the assessment of his residual functional capacity was in error as well.

In assessing whether the impairments were severe, the administrative law judge found that the plaintiff needed to have an impairment that was serious enough to substantially restrict the mental or physical ability to do essential work actions. The Commissioner needed to look at the combined impact of the impairments on his ability to function. Impairments can only be found non-serious if evidence establishes a small abnormality that doesn’t have more than a minimal impact on the person’s ability to work. A plaintiff is supposed to give medical evidence that includes symptoms, signs, and lab findings.

The administrative law judge concluded that the plaintiff had serious impairments of thoracic and lumbar degenerative disc disease and mild scoliosis of the cervical spine. The plaintiff argued that the administrative law judge had made a mistake in deciding that his anxiety and headaches weren’t severe impairments. The government argued that this error was inconsequential since the administrative law judge did find certain severe impairments and therefore proceeded to the next step anyway. The government also argued that substantial evidence supported the administrative law judge’s finding the plaintiff didn’t show this was a severe impairment.

However, the court agreed with the plaintiff and found that an improper legal standard was applied to determine how severe the plaintiff’s headaches were. There were multiple doctors consulted who found that the plaintiff’s headaches were severe, and the plaintiff’s ability to work since age 13 despite headaches didn’t undermine the doctors’ opinions. The issue was whether the impairment had more than a minimal impact on his ability to work. The court explained that a harmless error standard from the Batson case applied. It explained the error would only be harmless if the ultimate disability decision was still valid in spite of the error. Because she didn’t believe the headache was severe, the administrative law judge didn’t consider the degree to which the headache eroded the occupational base for light work.

For that reason, the matter was sent back for further development of the record and further findings.

It can be challenging to obtain Social Security Disability benefits, and it is often helpful for claimants to work with an experienced Social Security lawyer. If you believe you may need to apply for Social Security Disability benefits in Fresno, contact Peña & Bromberg, PLC at 559-439-9700 or via our online form.

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