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Court: ALJ's ruling had several errors

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Finding an administrative law judge's decision to deny a woman's claim for disability benefits contained several significant errors, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the District Court's affirmation of the denial and remanded the case to the Social Security Administration.

In Debi Villano v. Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, No. 08-2150, Debi Villano appealed the denial of her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits. She claimed she was disabled permanently because she had arthritis in her knees and was obese. The Social Security Administration denied her claims, and the District Court upheld the administrative law judge's decision to deny her claims.

The ALJ performed a five-step analysis looking at how long it had been since Villano last worked, her impairments, and residual functioning capacity to determine she wasn't disabled.

But the ALJ erred when determining Villano's statements that she couldn't sit for six hours a day weren't credible because no medical evidence showed she couldn't. The ALJ failed to acknowledge Villano was obese, and this failure may impact the credibility determination, the Circuit judges determined in the per curium opinion. In addition, the ALJ couldn't discredit a claimant's testimony about pain and limitations solely because there is no objective medical evidence supporting it, the court continued.

The ALJ also erred in determining Villano's residual functioning capacity. The judge had to evaluate all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe, and may not dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling, wrote the court. The ALJ's cursory analysis doesn't give the 7th Circuit Court confidence he had appropriate reasons for rejecting the limitations Villano alleged.

In addition, he erred in determining Villano could perform a significant number of jobs and finding that Villano had acquired the transferable skill of "judgment." Other Circuit Courts have ruled that judgment isn't a skill, and the ALJ erred in concluding Villano had a generalized skill of judgment that was somehow transferable to new jobs in a different field. He also mistakenly ruled Villano could perform more than 15,000 jobs.

"In light of the other problems we have identified, we are not convinced that these errors are harmless," the court wrote.

On remand, the ALJ should give reasoned assessments of Villano's credibility, residual functioning capability, transferable skills, and ability to perform a significant number of jobs.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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