The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday sent a case back to the Social Security Administration after finding an administrative law judge’s decision that a woman was not totally disabled until Nov. 1, 2008, “deeply flawed.”
Pamela Townsend applied for Social Security Disability Insurance in 2003, claiming she had become incapable of full-time employment in May 2002 due to physical and psychiatric elements. She lived with her parents and her father, Gene Williams, testified at two of her hearings as well as Townsend. The two did not testify at a third hearing held on the matter.
In January 2012, the administrative law judge decided that she did not become totally disabled until Nov. 1, 2008. Townsend died several months after the hearing and so Williams appealed the ALJ’s ruling partially adverse to his daughter’s claim. He wanted the date she became totally disabled pushed back to May 1, 2002. If the date she became totally disabled is earlier than June 30, 2006, the date on which Townsend ceased to be covered by SSDI, her father is entitled to his daughter’s disability insurance benefits from that date until the date of her death.
“As we – and other circuits – have emphasized repeatedly in reviewing denials of disability benefits by the Social Security Administration’s administrative law judges, the combined effects of the applicants impairments must be considered, including impairments that considered one by one are not disabling,” Judge Richard Posner wrote in Gene Williams on behalf of Pamela J. Townsend v. Carolyn W. Colvin, acting commissioner of Social Security, 13-3607.
The ALJ made it clear in her decision that she thought Townsend’s “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her fibromyalgia symptoms … (were) not credible prior to November 1, 2008, to the extent that they are inconsistent with” her being able to work.
The 7th Circuit found the ALJ’s analysis deeply flawed, pointing out that the judge assessed Townsend’s credibility without asking any questions of her and her father even though they both were present at the third hearing.
“The need to hear what Townsend might say concerning her physical ailments was essential because the medical evidence was inconclusive,” Posner wrote.
The doctor on whom the ALJ relied so heavily had not testified that Townsend was exaggerating her physical symptoms, but rather that since they probably had not been caused by fibromyalgia she should have additional medical tests in order to determine the cause.
“The administrative law judge committed the further error … of ignoring the combined effect of Townsend’s ailments on her ability to work. She considered Townsend’s psychiatric problems and found them not to be disabling, and then considered her physical problems and found them not to be disabling either, but she ignored the possibility that the combination was disabling,” Posner wrote.
These errors require reversal and remand to the Social Security Administration for a redetermination of the date on which Townsend became totally disabled and thus eligible for disability insurance benefits.