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7th Circuit reinstates hairdresser’s disability benefits case

December 27, 2018

A woman denied Social Security disability benefits was granted a second chance after a panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found her administrative law judge lacked substantial evidence to prove she wasn’t disabled.

Shannon McHenry applied for supplemental security disability benefits, asserting a disability onset date of January 1, 2011. McHenry claimed she suffered back pain after a 1990 car accident and was disabled by degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia and depression. She worked as a hairdresser until 2009, when she alleged she could no longer work due to back pain, cubital tunnel syndrome, sciatica, pinched nerves, spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia.

A 2014 MRI of her lumbar spine showed that McHenry had multiple impinged nerve roots in addition to spinal cord compression. A physician treating McHenry also found that her degenerative disc disease met the severity required in 20 CFR § 404.1520(d), Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, Listing 1.04A [“Listing 1.04A”].

McHenry’s initial request for disability was denied in December 2013, after which her oral request for an amended onset date of January 1, 2011, was accepted by an ALJ to be heard in March 2015. After two denials of disability benefits by the Social Security Administration, the ALJ found that despite McHenry’s diagnoses of degenerative disc disease and fibromyalgia, she lacked sufficient medical evidence that the conditions were disabling, and that she was not credible about her limitations. The ALJ further concluded McHenry could perform jobs that existed in the national economy, finding her not disabled.

That decision was affirmed in the Indiana Southern District court, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the decision, finding the ALJ should have acquired a medical expert to review a consequential MRI report in Shannon McHenry v. Nancy Berryhill, 18-1691.

The panel found error in the ALJ’s determination that McHenry’s condition did not meet Listing 1.04A’s requirement, finding his conclusion was unsupported by substantial evidence. Specifically, it found the ALJ failed to obtain a medical expert to review the 2014 MRI and rejected the only medical opinion regarding whether McHenry’s condition met Listing 1.04A.

“Our task is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion; here, it does not,” the panel unanimously wrote. 

The 7th Circuit Court therefore vacated the judgment of the district court upholding the ALJ’s decision to deny McHenry benefits and remanded to the Southern District for further proceedings.

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