51 year old man with a history of anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and depressive disorder, with headaches, left shoulder pain, and some herniated discs, claimed to be disabled since October 30, 2008. My client presented as extremely anxious and jumpy at the hearing. In spite of the sparse medical evidence, in my pre-hearing brief I had argued that physically he would be limited to less than “sedentary” work, and that his mental limitations would rule out most other jobs that he could otherwise perform. My client also had a history of marijuana use, which potentially compromised his claim of mental limitations. He testified that he lost jobs in the past because of his inability to communicate effectively with others, even during his period of sobriety. After the hearing, I did not believe that the judge was going to approve his claim.
Fortunately, a few weeks later we received a fully-favorable decision. The administrative law judge found that my client could do a wide range of “light” work activity, with many mental limitations resulting from his mood disorder. These limitations—in understanding, remembering and carrying out detailed instructions; maintaining attention and concentration for extended period; working in coordination with or proximity to others without being distracted by them; interacting appropriately with the general public; accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors; getting along with coworkers or peers without distracting them; responding appropriately to changes in the work setting; setting realistic goals or making plans independently of others; completing a normal workday or workweek without interruptions; and performing at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods—would prevent my client from performing any job that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ also found that, despite the use of marijuana, the limitations due to his depression and other impairments would continue to be disabling even in the absence of use of all drugs.
The outcome in this case was very fortunate for my client and me. My client made his case more difficult by choosing to use marijuana, and if the judge had wanted to, the judge could have easily ruled against his claim of disability because of his ongoing use of marijuana. I always let my clients know that using drugs or alcohol is only making my job, and their claim, more difficult to approve. Fortunately, my client did not have to suffer the indignity of an unfavorable decision and the necessity of living without an income until a new claim could be filed and (hopefully) paid. Please don’t assume that because one client may be approved despite drug or alcohol use that your claim may enjoy the same degree of success. For each one of these successful claims, there are ten others with similar facts that are denied.