Mayer Brown Lawyers Win Social Security Disability Appeal
28 June 2007
In a case assigned by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Rick McCombs and Therese King won an appeal on behalf of an indigent, disabled woman seeking Social Security disability benefits. The woman, a life-long resident of Chicago, sustained severe back and knee injuries in a car accident while driving a van for her employer. Until the accident, the woman had worked steadily at physically-taxing jobs, such as mail delivery services, and had led an active life. After the accident, despite months of physical therapy, she was largely home-bound, unable to drive, stand or walk for prolonged periods of time. With no means of financial support, she relied largely on her family's kindness to survive.
She applied for disability benefits, but the Social Security Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied her request and found that, while she suffered from several severe physical impairments, she was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Only by ignoring a wealth of contrary evidence, the ALJ found that the medical evidence did not support her claims and that her testimony regarding the extent of her pain and limitations was not credible. She appealed the ALJ's denial to the District Court and sought the appointment of counsel. On July 12, 2006, the District Court appointed Therese King to represent her. Rick McCombs took an interest in the case and agreed to supervise the appeal. Between the date of the administrative hearing and the appeal, the woman was able to complete an EMG, which she was unable to complete before her administrative hearing due to pain and discomfort. The EMG provided additional, objective medical evidence supporting her claims of nerve damage in her back.
On appeal, Mayer Brown moved for summary judgment and requested that the Court remand the case for several reasons, citing new medical evidence that became available only after the hearing, and the ALJ's failure to weigh conflicting medical evidence that supported the woman's claims. In a nine-page opinion, Judge Kennelly of the Northern District of Illinois granted Mayer Brown's motion for summary judgment in large part and denied the government's cross-motion for summary judgment. The District Court found that there was good cause to remand the case to consider her new EMG results, and that the EMG results were material evidence that may have changed the ALJ's finding had they been available at the time of the hearing.
In remanding the case, the District Court criticized several errors made by the ALJ and provided guidance for the case to proceed on remand. Largely adopting Mayer Brown's arguments, the District Court found that the ALJ "offered no  explanation" for disregarding medical evidence that conflicted with his ultimate conclusion that the woman did not suffer from nerve damage in her back, and that he "failed to elaborate on his conclusory statement" that there was no such damage. Further, with respect to the ALJ's erroneous credibility finding, the District Court held that the ALJ did "exactly what the Seventh Circuit has found inappropriate." That is, he ignored objective medical evidence that corroborated the woman's testimony about her pain and suffering. The District Court noted that the ALJ "gave no explanation for how he weighed the conflicting evidence" and that he gave "short shrift" to the woman's last medical exam, during which her doctor found that her complaints were consistent with his objective medical findings.