In taking what it called a rare step, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered an award of disability benefits to a woman who was previously denied her request for them. The 7th Circuit concluded an administrative law judge’s decision denying her request was not supported by substantial evidence.
Gail Martin, a 67-year-old woman living in northeast Indiana, sought benefits due to physical and psychological problems she suffered that stem partially from two car accidents. Martin claims to suffer persistent back pain from those accidents, as well as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and PTSD. As a result, she stopped working in 2009. She had worked as a home health aide, data entry clerk and administrative assistant.
Martin sought disability benefits and before her first administrative law judge hearing, the Commissioner of Social Security requested that a doctor examined Martin. That doctor concluded that Martin experienced back spasms, was slow moving and had significantly limited range of motion in her neck, back, and hips. Two non-examining state agency doctors also reviewed Martin’s medical records and case file for physical impairments and concluded that she could perform no more than a limited range of light work. Only one state agency doctor found she had no physical limitations, a view that was provided without examining Martin or reviewing the first state agency doctor’s findings.
The ALJ in Martin’s first hearing concluded she had severe physical impairments but could work in a sedentary job requiring little social interaction, including in her previous positions as a data entry clerk or administrative assistant. During a hearing on remand with a new ALJ, Martin was determined to have serious psychological problems that limited her work, but that her back pain was not severe and did not in any way affect her ability to work.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, although finding no issue with the second ALJ’s determination regarding Martin’s mental abilities, concluded that the second ALJ’s determination that Martin could perform physical work at all exertional levels “finds nowhere close to substantial support in the record.”
“The second ALJ assigned little weight to every medical opinion related to physical conditions except for the one provided by Dr. (Joshua) Eskonen, an agency physician who never examined Martin nor reviewed her previous case file. The ALJ even credited Dr. Eskonen’s opinion over that of Dr. (David) Ringel, the state-agency doctor who did perform a physical examination of Martin at the Commissioner’s request,” Circuit Judge Michael Scudder wrote. “Even more, in choosing to credit particular findings Dr. Ringel made about Martin’s physical ability, the second ALJ altogether ignored others making plain that Martin had serious neck and back problems. The ALJ’s analysis strikes us as impermissible cherry-picking — highlighting facts that support a finding of non-disability while ignoring evidence to the contrary.
“… If Martin can barely perform simple household tasks, it defies reality to conclude that she is able to perform physical labor at any level of exertion. Because the evidence falls far from supporting the second ALJ’s finding, we must reverse,” the 7th Circuit wrote.
Additionally, the 7th Circuit took the “rare step” of ordering the award of benefits for Martin, reversing and remanding in Gail Martin v. Andrew M. Saul, 19-1957. http://media.ca7.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/rssExec.pl?Submit=Display&Path=Y2020/D02-07/C:19-1957:J:Scudder:aut:T:fnOp:N:2469878:S:0
“By our estimation, and mindful of the administrative guidance embodied in the agency’s Program Operations Manual System, Martin’s benefits award should begin on March 9, 2010 —the day after her first of three applications was denied and not further challenged on appeal. The record shows that she has been eligible … since that date,” the 7th Circuit concluded.