Summary: 38 year old woman seeking closed period benefits based on depression and anxiety
Client profile: 38 year old female
Education: high school graduate + 2 years of college
Past work: consistent work history of 15+ years as human resources clerk and as customer service rep. As of approx. 1 month prior to the hearing she began working as a data entry clerk
Claim background: my client filed for benefits in September, 2013 alleging disability beginning in the winter of 2012. She returned to work in January, 2015, which marks the end of the claimed closed period. The hearing was held in an Atlanta area hearing office in February, 2015.
Factors in our favor:
- closed period cases are always preferable, especially for younger claimants because these claims do not represent open ended obligations for Social Security
- my client has been receiving both psychiatric and psychological treatment consistently both prior to and continuing through the closed period
- both the treating psychiatrist and the treating psychologist completed assessment forms indicating a severe level of impairment
- just prior to the start of the closed period my client was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal ideation where she was treated for over 2 weeks as an inpatient
- my client was an excellent witness and was able to explain her symptoms clearly and eloquently
Factors not in our favor:
- the judge assigned to this case has the lowest rate of case approvals in the entire Atlanta area
- the consultative psychological evaluation did not reveal significant vocational limitations
- the medical records from the psychologist and psychiatrist do not contain significant detail
My strategy: I felt that my client has a compelling story. Because of her mental illness she lost a ten year long job earning over $50,000 annually, and was evicted from the apartment she had lived in for over 5 years. People in her situation don’t simply stop working and give up their lifestyle hoping for a Social Security disability award.
Hearing Report: my client and I entered the hearing room and were greeted by the judge. The vocational witness was appearing by telephone. After swearing in the witnesses and accepting the evidence into the record, the judge asked me for a brief opening statement. Prior to giving my opening I advised the judge that we were amending our claim to a closed period claim. The judge offered his congratulations to my client and accepted the amendment. I then proceeded to give my opening in which I offered the timeline of what my client has been through, the support of her treating mental health providers and what I anticipated from her testimony.
The judge then began questioning my client about her impairments. This judge does a very thorough job in his questioning and my client did a very good job answering those questions clearly. She did not exaggerate and I felt that she painted a picture of someone who was functioning at a minimal level during the two year closed period.
Specifically my client testified that she would go weeks without bathing or even brushing her teeth, that she would stay with friends or relatives after her eviction and would rarely leave her room. She described explosive crying spells and severe anxiety associated with leaving her room.
After the judge finished, I asked a more general question – “if you were to try to describe what it is like to have anxiety and depression at the level you have spoken about how would you explain it?” My client responded that she felt like she was stuck at the bottom of a tar bit and that she was dragged down with every attempt to do anything – getting dressed, bathing, etc. I also asked her if she could attribute her depression and anxiety to any particular event but she became very tearful and could not continue.
At that point the judge turned to the vocational witness and asked her to describe my client’s past work, which were two administrative clerk positions that were semi-skilled, sit down jobs.
The judge then asked the following hypothetical questions:
1. Assume an individual who is the same age as our claimant, with the same education and work background. Assume further that she has no exertional limitations but has the following non-exertional limitations:
- limited to simple, routine tasks
- occasional changes in work setting
- occasional interaction with the general public
- job should not involve fast paced production demands
Could she perform the claimant’s past relevant work?
Are there other jobs in the regional or national economy she could perform?
A: Yes. She could perform the duties of a linen grader or garment assembler, both of which are light, unskilled jobs.
2. Assume that our hypothetical person:
- does not have the capacity to respond to simple instructions
- would not be able to handle changes in work setting
A: Such a person could not perform past work or any other work.
The judge then asked me if I had any questions. My hypothetical question was as follows:
3. Assume we have the person described in hypothetical question #1 but add the following:
up to 3 days per week this person would be off task for up to 10% of the workday due to:
- episodes of uncontrolled crying spells
- lapses in concentration that would prevent performance of tasks at hand
A: Such a person could not perform past work or any other work
The judge then reminded my client that his written decision could take a month or longer to be issued and he closed the hearing.
Conclusions: this is a case that should be approved for the closed period. My feeling is that most judges would find the evidence and testimony compelling. As noted above the judge assigned to this case has a very low approval rate so we will have to see what he does.