This case involved a 40 year old woman who had been disabled since December 2009 due to lumbar degenerative disc disease with right leg and lower lumbar pain; right hip pain; and chronic complex pain under treatment with opioid medications, alleged that she had been unable to work since September 2003. Before the hearing, I discussed with my client the fact that her onset date was so far in the past made it difficult for the ALJ to find that she was disabled, particularly in the absence of extensive treating records going back that far.
Although I am always reluctant to amend onset dates in the absence of good reason, in her case I did not believe there was any point in trying to prove that she was disabled before her date last insured in March 2004 because the evidence just was not strong enough during that time period. Therefore, we amended her onset date to the date of the SSI claim in November, 2009. I argued that a lumbar spine MRI dated the month before demonstrated that she had degenerative disc disease that was a reasonable source for her back pain. In addition, she was getting treatments for pain, including injections and narcotic pain medications.
At the hearing, the ALJ only asked the vocational expert about past jobs, and nothing about what a person like my client could do in the presence of similar limitations. I argued that she could not perform any work on a regular and continuing basis because of her chronic back and leg pain.
The ALJ found that my client could not perform the full range of even “sedentary” work due to her pain and bipolar disorder. He found that my client’s impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms, and that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the symptoms was generally credible. Even though the medical vocational rules would find someone like my client limited to sedentary work “not disabled,” when her additional work-related limitations were taken into account, a finding of “disabled” would be appropriate. The ALJ dismissed the claim for Disability Insurance Benefits because of the amended onset date, but found my client “disabled” for purposes of the Supplemental Security Income benefits.
What you can learn from this case: This hearing illustrates how even persons substantially younger than 50 years of age can be successful in pursuing disability. I had to resort to amending the onset date to the date of the claim, in November, 2009, because there just was not sufficient evidence before that date to argue for an onset date before her date last insured of March 31, 2004. In effect, I advised abandoning her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) in exchange for receiving Supplemental Security Income Benefits (SSI). There was simply no chance that the ALJ would recognize an onset date so far in the past. Sometimes it is best to know when it is wise to give up pursuit of an unrealistic goal. Had I attempted to prove she was disabled 7 years before the hearing, we may not have received a favorable decision at all, and my client would be without any monthly support.