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Good News from the Fifth Circuit for Disability Applicants

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a stunning rebuke of the Social Security Administration in a decision that is likely to be cited for years to come. This is a welcome relief to disability applicants in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, all of which reside in the Fifth Circuit.

The opinion is Schofield v. Saul, and the question was whether the Administration was required to explain why it denied Ms. Schofield’s disability application without considering her borderline age. By way of background, age has a significant impact on whether a disability applicant is found disabled, particularly if the applicant is 55 or older. At 55, the claimant need only prove that she cannot perform her past work and is limited to light work activity or less without transferable job skills. A similar outcome is directed for unskilled workers who are 50-54 and limited to sedentary work. In short, for a lot of disability applicants, age is everything.

That was particularly true for Schofield, who was only four months shy of her 55th birthday. Had the ALJ applied the higher age category, he would have had to find her disabled. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the ALJ, who never explained why he declined to consider the higher age category, which the federal regulations envision in such borderline situations.

The Fifth Circuit’s decision to remand was not particularly surprising. What was surprising, however, was the Court’s apparent impatience with the government’s opposing arguments. The Court acknowledged that ALJs do—as the government argued—have a lot of discretion under substantial-evidence review. “But substantial evidence requires at least, in a word, evidence,” and while the government pointed out that the ALJ cited all of the correct legal standards, the Fifth Circuit pointed out that there must be “more than mere citation to a regulatory provision.” The Fifth Circuit went on to add that SSA serves a unique inquisitorial role that cannot be fulfilled if the ALJ doesn’t explain his decision. Otherwise, disability applicants would be left “at ‘the mercy of a bureaucrat’s caprice.’”

We consider this a significant step in the right direction for Texans and all Americans applying for disability benefits. As the Court recognized, the disability process is a “long and winding road” through a labyrinth with significant obstacles along the way. Schofield however makes the journey a little more manageable, and we hope to continue to see this kind of progress in the future. The decision can be found here.

If you have questions about whether you qualify for disability benefits, or if you are looking for legal representation, please contact Coats & Todd for a free case evaluation.

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