Appeals Court Rules for Disabled with Mental Illnesses

Appeals Court Rules for Disabled with Mental Illnesses

In an important victory for Social Security disability claimants, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a judge’s denial of disability benefits for an individual with mental illness. In doing so, the court emphasized the ability to do basic tasks does not preclude one’s inability to function in a work environment on a sustained basis. The judge’s opinion that minimized medical proof of disabling mental illness violated the rules of the Social Security disability program.

What mental illnesses are considered a disability

Chronic depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder left man unable to work.

Disability due to mental illness is often the basis for a successful Social Security disability claim. In a recent Eleventh Circuit appeal, a man with mental illness applied multiple times for Social Security disability based on having several psychiatric conditions that dated back to at least 2013. Starting in 2013 the man received treatment from a psychiatrist who saw him almost three dozen times over the next four years. Though the patient was medicated and stable, he still suffered from anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. The psychiatrist submitted a report that said the man had “extreme” limitations with:

  • understanding, remembering and applying information;
  • interacting with others; and
  • concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace.

Denied disability for mental illness

Administrative hearing judge denies claim.

The psychiatrist’s records supported the man’s claim for Social Security disability benefits. However, after a hearing, the administrative law judge denied the man’s claim. The judge disregarded the helpful parts of the psychiatrists’ records because - the judge said - they were ‘inconsistent” with other parts of the psychiatrist’s own records and some one-time consultations by Social Security’s doctors.

The patient was “stable on medication”, he was able to complete daily tasks like getting dressed and going grocery shopping. The Social Security doctors reported the patient had good eye contact and could do mathematical calculations. Based on these factors, the administrative law judge denied the claim. The federal court of appeals rejected this finding.

Only “genuine” inconsistencies matter.

If a doctor’s records are inconsistent, they may tend to show that doctor’s conclusions are not as solid as they may seem. However, minor inconsistencies - like those that could be explained by the difference in how one feels on separate doctor visits - are not enough for a treating physician’s records and opinions to be disregarded. In this case, the administrative law judge had to identify“genuine” inconsistencies before throwing out the psychiatrist’s opinions.

Stable on medications is not inconsistent with disabling mental illness.

Taking one’s medications and otherwise following a doctor’s treatment is important - both to your own health and to your disability claim. Indeed, claims can be denied if you are failing to follow a doctor’s instructions without good cause. Taking medications is expected, but when they work they do not necessarily remove your disability.

The administrative law judge pounced on the psychiatrist’s reports that the patient was “stable on medication.” The judge focused on this language but ignored evidence of panic attacks, racing thoughts, mood swings, outbursts of anger, memory problems, paranoia, and self-isolation. The appeals court rejected this approach.

Mental Illness Disability

Good days and Bad Days

“Many mental disorder - and bipolar disorder in particular - are characterized by the unpredictable fluctuation of their symptoms and thus it is not surprising that even a hildy unstable pateint will have good days or possibly good months.”

— Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

Ability to do math problems not fatal to claim

The consulting doctors that examined the claimant noted that he had the ability to solve basic math problems. The administrative law judge relied on this to ignore the psychiatrist’s records. On appeal, the court rejected the idea that one’s ability to do basic math problems was indicative of someone with a mental illness’s ability to perform simple tasks on a full-time basis. Multiplication tables in a doctor’s office have little or nothing to do with someone’s ability to respond to work pressures, ability to interact with co-workers or customers, or ability to concentrate and maintain pace at work.

Getting disability for mental illness

Where to learn more

The claimant in this appeal will now get another chance at their Social Security disability claim. If your claim for disability is denied, don’t give up your claim without first talking to a lawyer about your appeal options. You might still have a successful claim. In most cases, you only pay your Social Security attorney if you win, even on appeal. If you are in Alabama, contact Disability Alabama about your case today.