Summary: 56 year old female with multiple medical issues including chronic back pain, knee pain, diverticulitis, bi-polar disorder
Client profile: 59 year old female (age 56 at onset)
Education: high school graduate plus some college courses
Past work: carpet manufacturing machine operator (classified as medium, semi-skilled work with no transferrable skills)
Claim background: my client filed for benefits in October, 2011, alleging an onset date in March, 2011. A hearing was held in a north Georgia hearing office in July, 2014.
Medical background: my client has an extensive list of medical issues and she sees her doctors regularly. Her orthopedic issues (back pain and knee pain) are documented by both treatment records and MRI reports, however, she is not a surgical candidate and the MRI reports show a mild level of impairment. Similarly, her diverticulitis and associated bowel and bladder incontinence are documented but not at an extreme level.
My client does walk with a cane and was prepared to testify that she has used a cane (although not one prescribed by a doctor) since prior to her onset date.
That being said, there is no suggestion in the record that my client is malingering or falsifying symptoms. Her subjective complaints are consistent with objective findings, although her complaints are perhaps slightly greater than what testing shows.
Factors in our favor:
- the judge in our case has a higher than average approval rate
- my client has a long and consistent work history
- my client comes across as credible
- my client tends to ramble and get off topic which works in her favor in that her capacity to maintain focus and concentration is clearly impaired
- she is over age 55
Factors not in our favor:
- the objective medical evidence does not support the level of impairment claimed by my client
- my client views herself as “disabled” – an attitude which can be off-putting to some judges
My strategy: I felt that my strongest argument in this case was a grid rule argument. As of her onset date my client was almost 56 years old. She was a high school graduate and her past work (based on my review of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles) was medium exertional level and low-end semi-skilled. Based on my experience there are no transferrable skills that arise from operating a carpet manufacturing machine. My client uses a cane and was prepared to testify that she could not regularly carry a gallon of milk. Grid Rule 202.06 would seem to apply here, meaning that the judge would have to find her capable of medium work in order to not find her disabled.
In the alternative, I was prepared to make a functional capacity argument, i.e., that the combination of mild to moderate impairments, when considered together, would so erode my client’s capacity to function that she would not be able to perform the duties of any type of competitive work.
I submitted a pre-hearing brief setting out my arguments.
Hearing Report: the hearing was held by video conference, with the judge and vocational witness in another state and my client and me in a local hearing room. The judge opened the hearing by greeting the claimant, introducing the parties (although we never actually saw the VE), swearing in my client and the VE, and accepting the claims file into evidence.
As I had submitted a detailed pre-hearing brief (which you can read by clicking on the link) I did not make an opening statement. The judge started the questioning by asking my client an open-ended question: “why do you contend that you are disabled and not able to work?”
My client testified that she had been a loyal and highly regarded carpet manufacturing machine operator for two large carpet mills. She had received numerous awards from her company and had been tasked with training other employees.
Unfortunately 20 years of working on a concrete floor, lifting 75 lb. spools of yarn and working strenuously on carpet manufacturing machines had taken toll on her body.
In addition to chronic back pain, she had previously broken her ankle which led to knee pain. Degenerative disc disease in her back resulted in significant back pain and numbness in her legs, and occasional incontinence. As a result of the pain and numbness, my client uses a cane to walk.
Long term chronic pain also resulted in depression, which produced crying spells and problems with concentration.
My client came across as believable, although she did tend to ramble. My sense is that the judge recognized her lack of focus as part of her impairment.
I asked several follow up questions in an attempt to quantify her limitations – questions about how long she could sit, how long could she stand and walk, how much could she lift, etc. We had practiced all of these questions in our pre-hearing, but my client still had some difficulty staying on track.
This was a case where my client’s problems focusing during the hearing was almost as important as what she was trying to say. Obviously I was a little concerned that the judge might get frustrated, but he showed a great deal of patience and I think he got a good sense of how my client interacts with others in a business type setting.
After taking testimony the judge turned to the vocational witness and presented a question that included significant limitations, including the inability to complete a workday due to pain and medication side effects. The VE, not surprisingly, testified that there would be no jobs that a person with those limitations could perform.
Conclusions: based on the judge’s hypothetical question, I felt comfortable that he found my client credible and would issue a favorable decision. The decision, which you can read by clicking on the link reflects the judge’s favorable consideration of my client’s credibility.