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Social Security Law Judge Debra H. Goldstein* and Jennifer Goldstein Practicing Social Security Law — Th e Best Kept Secret Of the almost 4 million Social Security Administration (SSA) disabil- ity Title II and Title XVI claims closed nationally in fi scal year 2011, 17% were decided at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level. Birmingham, with eighteen sitting Article V judges, handles one of the largest dockets in the country. Although each ALJ adjudicated case has a projected lifetime value of $250,000 and can provide an attorney or non-attorney representa- tive a minimum fee of the lesser of 25% or $6,000,1 only a small segment of the bar specializes in this area. Many attorneys shy away from SSA cases simply because of their unfamiliarity with the applicable laws, regulations, and procedures which diff er from the percentage of disability and short term concepts of Worker’s Compensation or Veteran’s Aff airs proceedings. For SSA purposes, disability is defi ned as the inability to en- evidence of substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. 404.1574 and gage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically de- 416.974. If the claimant is not working or does not have gainful terminable impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death earnings, application of the fi ve step disability analysis continues. or which has lasted or which can be expected to last for a con- Does the individual have an impairment that is “severe?” tinuous period of at least twelve months. Th e disability prevents Impairment is “severe,” within the meaning of the Act, if it is the person from performing his or her past work and a signifi cant more than a slight abnormality imposing more than a minimal ef- number of other jobs as those jobs exist in the national economy. fect on an individual’s ability to perform basic work-related activi- Sections 216(i), 233, and 1614 of the Social Security Act (Act) and ties. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520 and 416.920, 404.1521 and 416.921. If 20 C.F.R. 404.1505 and 416.905. At all levels of the disability re- multiple impairments are alleged, the combined eff ects of all of the view process, an individual’s claim is evaluated in light of fi ve steps, impairments must be considered. A fi nding of “severe” is not a fi nd- which are termed “the sequential evaluation process.” ing of disability; only that the threshold requirement to continue the Th e Sequential sequential evaluation has been met. Evaluation Process equal one specifi ed in the Listing of Impairments?Does an impairment or combination of impairments meet or Is the claimant performing “substantial gainful activity?” At the initial administrative level of determination, SSA Substantial gainful activity involves performing physical or recently adopted two new initiatives to speed up the processing mental activities that may be as simplistic as taking tickets at a of some new disability claims: Compassionate Allowances and movie theater or mowing lawns. 20 C.F.R. 404.1572 and 416.972. Quick Disability Determinations. Under Compassionate Allow- If the claimant has earnings, even from part-time work, these earn- ances, 165 diseases or conditions have been identifi ed as qualifying ings must be compared against a statutory amounts table to deter- for immediate disability benefi ts once the diagnosis is confi rmed. mine if they meet the defi nition of gainful. Presently, if one has Th e Quick Disability Determinations process uses computer earnings averaging more than $1,010 a month, this is considered screening to identify claims with a high likelihood of being allowed. * Th e views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not 1. Fee petitions for higher fees can be fi led for cases decided or remanded from U.S. necessarily refl ect those of any government department or agency. District Court, a federal Circuit Appellate Court, or the U.S. Supreme Court. 26 Birmingham Bar Association


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