Claimant: 35 year old male
Occupation: past work as plumber’s helper, a plastic bottle manufacturing machine operator, a truck driver, and a landscape maintenance worker
Education: my client dropped out of school in the 10th grade. He had a great deal of difficulty in school and attended special education classes. He has basic reading/writing and math skills, but contends that prior to his injury he was skilled with his hands fixing mechanical things.
Hearing Info: My client applied for benefits in October, 2006, alleging an onset date of August 24, 2006. On that date, he was involved in a serious roll-over accident when he lost control of the truck he was driving and ran off the road. My client was not wearing a seat belt and he suffered several broken vertebra in the neck, severe damage to his left arm and damage to his lower back. His doctors describe him as an “incomplete paraplegic.”
In addition to his physical injuries, my client has experienced cognitive loss (poor short term and long term memory), mood swings, anxiety and depression. He receives regular treatment from both a pain management physician as well as a psychiatrist.
Background: I felt that this was a strong case because of the nature and extent of my client’s injuries. He also had an extensive work history despite his age. I did have three concerns: (1) my client is relatively young to receive SSDI benefits; (2) at our pre-hearing meeting I observed that my client would be a poor witness because of his poor memory, slow comprehension and tendency to answer questions with vague, two word answers; (3) the judge assigned to our case is a “no-nonsense” very direct type of person. I have not had that many cases with him but I get the sense that he is somewhat conservative, although he strikes me as the type of person who will read the medical record carefully and who will be completely prepared for his hearings.
Hearing Strategy: this case was heard in person in the downtown Atlanta hearing office by a judge based out of this office. I had never tried a case before this judge although I had met him before. As noted above, this judge strikes me as a “no-nonsense” type.
Because I had doubts as to whether my client would be a good witness, I felt like the focus of the case needed to be on the medical record. We had previously obtained a very supportive mental health functional capacity form which had already been submitted.
Therefore, we had a severe and very specific injury (the truck accident), physical and mental health impairments that clearly and logically flowed from that traumatic injury, and we had a functional capacity form that “translated” the mental health issues into specific work limitations.
The Hearing: the judge opened the hearing by introducing himself and the vocational witness. Even during the introductions my client was fidgeting and shifting in his chair. I gave an opening statement setting out my argument (see “hearing strategy,” above). The judge then asked my client a number of questions. As I expected, my client was not a good witness and the judge at times appeared to be getting a little frustrated. I sensed that the judge had read the record and most likely recognized that my client would meet the requirements for disability but he almost seemed to want certain answers from my client (which were not forthcoming because of my client’s limitations).
After taking testimony, the judge turned to the vocational witness and asked a detailed hypothetical question that contained significant limitations. The vocational witness testified that my client could not return to past work or to any other jobs.
The judge closed the hearing with a somewhat unusual remark. He told my client that he was being awarded benefits, but that the judge “could change his mind” if he discovered that my client had lied during his testimony and had been working, and that the Appeals Council had the right to reverse any hearing judge.
Technically the judge is correct in making these points, but I have never observed a judge close a hearing with these type of warnings. Given that most disability claimants have been waiting for many years, I don’t know that it is really necessary to put such a downer on what otherwise would be a happy occasion. Perhaps the judge does this in every case he approves or perhaps he had a bad feeling about my client
Summary: I got the sense that our judge did not establish much of a rapport with my client and that he had some doubts about the truthfulness of my client’s allegations, but that the medical record was so overwhelming that the judge felt that he had no choice. In any case, the judge will be issuing a favorable decision.