Summary: this case involved the claim of a 59 year old female with a masters degree and past work as a high level computer software consultant who is alleging disability based on fibromyalgia and depression
Past work: sales, marketing, training and installation of computer systems for governments and large companies; substitute teaching
Education: masters degree
Hearing info: my client filed for benefits in June, 2010 alleging disability beginning in 2004 when she left her software consulting position. We contended that the substitute teaching work that occurred in 2007, 2008 and 2009 was not “substantial” work because it was part time and did not involve a regular schedule. The hearing was held in January, 2012 in Atlanta before a judge who I know to be very pleasant and more likely than average to approve claims.
Background: my client had a very solid work background and consistent and on-going medical treatment from both her family doctor and from a rheumatologist attesting to a severe case of fibromyalgia. Further, there was a psychological consultative evaluation in the file that identified two significant work limitations: difficulty adhering to a work schedule and difficulty coping with work stress. While fibromyalgia cases always involve subjective complaints, I felt that this case was very strong.
Factors in our favor included:extensive and on-going medical record
- medical records from treating doctors were very supportive
- Social Security consultative evaluation report contained several significant limitations
- my client is very well spoken and clearly had no incentive to stop working
Factors not in our favor included:
- there were no records of on-going mental health counseling
- fibromyalgia complaints are subjective by nature and an unsympathetic judge could discount them
Hearing strategy: I felt that this was a very good case. My client was 59 years old and in my experience claimants over the age of 50 always have an edge. The medical record was complete and supportive and we had two well documented conditions that could support a finding of disability. I also felt that my client would testify clearly and eloquently about her condition to a judge who has always been very reasonable. I also knew from past experience that this judge gives a great deal of weight to good opening statements so I prepared mine carefully in advance of this hearing.
Hearing report: the judge opened the hearing by asking me to introduce myself and my client into the record. The judge then accepted the exhibits into the record and asked me for an opening statement. The judge then asked me for my opening statement which I provided. I specfically made reference to several of the exhibits and identified several significant work limitations that were included in the record.
The judge then began his inquiry by asking my client why she felt that she was not able to work. My client described her various areas of pain and the frustration she was experiencing in not being able to work. The judge asked her a number of opened ended questions which she answered but I did not feel that the judge focused enough on the activity limitations arising from those conditions.
When the judge turned the questioning over to me, I felt that I needed to elicit more specific details from my client about the level of pain she was experiencing, the location of that pain and the frequency of her pain. I also asked her to describe in detail symptoms of depression she was suffering and specifics about the side effects of her medications.
I felt that the judge’s questions did not contain enough specifics for a question to the vocational witness. I sensed that the judge was going to conclude that my client was credible but in order to protect her interests, I wanted the specifics on the record.
After I finished questioning my client, the judge turned to me and said that he felt that he had enough information to make a decision without asking questions to the vocational witness. The judge then issued a “bench decision” approving my client’s claim and awarding her benefits dating back to her original claimed onset date. Interestingly the judge made specific reference to the job limitations set out in the consultative psychological evaluation as opposed to the fibromyalgia references in the main record.
Analysis: this was a solid case involving a credible claimant tried before a reasonable and sympathetic judge. I did find it interesting that the judge’s written decision will rely more on a single visit psychological consultative evaluation as opposed to a multi-year record of fibromyalgia treatment. This suggests to me that Social Security judges remain wary about approving cases based solely on fibromyalgia.