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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. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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