Claimant: 48 year old male (deceased prior to the hearing)
Occupation: pest control technician
Hearing info: Claimant applied for benefits in April 2006, alleging an onset date of September 23, 2005. The claimant died from a heart attack in September, 2007 while waiting for his hearing to be scheduled. The claimant was divorced but was survived by an 18 year old son, with whom he had regular contact. We filed a substitution of party with Social Security and the son appeared with me and testified at the hearing.
Background: the claimant had a long and consistent work record, including 4 years in the military, construction work and 19 years as a pest control technician. In 1985 or 1986, the claimant contracted the Chicken Pox and believed that the virus “settled” in his spine. Most of the claimant’s treatment was with the VA and no definitive diagnosis was ever made. The claimant did have one independent consultation with a neurologist who expressed doubt about the Chicken Pox/spinal canal link. However the consulting neurologist did recognize an abnormal lower extremity nerve conduction study that was consistent with the claimant’s complaints of pain and weakness.
Hearing Strategy: when we arrived at the hearing, I gave the hearing reporter our notice of substitution of party and an appointment of representative form. The judge called me in to the hearing room prior to the hearing and he advised me that his file did not indicate that the claimant had died (my office had notified the hearing office about the claimant’s death by letter and phone call, but the message did not get to the judge).
The judge then asked the claimant (the 18 year old son) into the hearing room and began the hearing. He asked the claimant to describe his father’s condition and to explain why the father was not able to work. The claimant described his father living alone in a small apartment, frequently unable to get out of bed. The claimant testified that he regularly went shopping for his father and that he and his grandmother often cooked meals for the father and cleaned his apartment.
The judge then noted that the record did document a nerve issue, even though there was not any definitive diagnosis. The judge then said that he would pay the case, but that he would hold the record open for a copy of the death certificate.
Interestingly, the judge did not talk about the many references to the deceased claimant’s alcohol use and abuse. The VA records contain numerous references to the claimant as an alcoholic. The death certificate, which the son provided to me later in the day, shows the cause of death as “alcoholism.”
I believe that when I submit the death certificate, I will address the alcohol issue and ask the judge to include in his decision a conclusion that alcohol use was not a material contributing factor to the claimant’s disability.