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Working and Disability

Posted on in Uncategorized

Dallas SSDI attorneysCan you work and collect disability? That's a question we often get, and the answer isn't as easy as you might think. This topic gets complicated quickly and it's impossible to provide a comprehensive answer in a single blog post. However, this should help to provide a basic overview of how working can affect your disability application.

It's not about 'work'; it's about 'substantial gainful activity.'

To keep this as simple as possible, the government will not award disability benefits to those who are gainfully working. In fact, that's the very first question Social Security asks itself when it receives a disability application. Except instead of referring to 'work,' it refers to 'substantial gainful activity,' or SGA. This SGA concept is so significant, in fact, that Congress specifically defined disability as the 'inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. . . .'

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A lot of people get confused about the difference between SSI and SSDI, and some of our clients have spent years applying for disability without any grasp of the two programs. If you're wondering about the difference, then this is for you.

Let's start with how the programs are similar. SSDI and SSI both provide monthly benefits for those who are disabled, and the standards for what is a 'disability' are virtually identical. Both apply a five-step analysis that grants disability if you are not working, so long as you have a severe impairment that either:

a) meets/equals the medical criteria the government set in its Listing of Impairments, or else:

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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.

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Back pain is an incredibly common condition, with as many as 80% of all people expected to experience back pain at some point in their lifetimes, according to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA). Additionally, the ACA notes that back pain accounts for over 265 million lost hours of work every year. It is one of the top reasons people miss work, and it is the single leading cause of disability. All this to say, if you're currently experiencing debilitating back pain or have been unable to work in the past due to back pain, you're not alone!

But, do you qualify for disability for your back pain? And, if you do, how do you actually get your Social Security disability benefits?

What Is 'Medically Determinable' Back Pain?

The first thing you need to know about qualifying for disability based on back pain is that the Social Security Administration (SSA) does not typically grant benefits to those with mild, moderate, or intermittent back pain. Despite the fact that the SSA receives millions of applications for back pain-more applications for any other type of illness or injury, in fact-it only grants benefits to individuals with 'medically determinable' back impairments. This means that, in order to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you'll need to show that you have an impairment that can be detected and affirmed by a medical professional.

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Earlier this week, the Supreme Court decided Biestek v. Berryhill, a case we hoped would balance in favor of all disability claimants. Unfortunately, the Court did not reach the outcome we had expected.

Understanding the Disability Process

Before delving into the merits of this case, some overview of the disability process is necessary. For most disability applicants, their best hope of success is a hearing before an administrative law judge. The hearing is usually attended by the claimant, his or her attorney, and various expert witnesses, including a vocational expert (and, occasionally, a medical expert). These experts exert tremendous influence on the outcome of a hearing, particularly the vocational expert, or 'VE,' who is responsible for classifying the applicant's job history and testifying as to whether or not there are other duties the applicant can perform.

The Vocational Expert

Enter Biestek. In this case, the vocational expert testified that Biestek could perform 120,000 'sorter' jobs and 240,000 'bench assembler' jobs – the implication being that he was not disabled. When Biestek's attorney asked how the vocational expert arrived at these numbers, she replied that they were from her own private labor market surveys. When the attorney asked to see these surveys, the vocational expert refused, and the Judge concluded that it was unnecessary. After the hearing, the Judge issued a partially favorable decision, denying some of Biestek's benefits based on the vocational expert's testimony. Now, the question was whether the vocational expert's testimony could be considered 'substantial evidence' to deny the claim.

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