Sunday, June 12, 2011

Social Security Disability: Don't Sabotage Your Case

The following true story is from Tracey E. Cahn a very experienced SSDI lawyer who works for my law firm. This story illustrates how someones disability can sometimes hurt their case. It is also an example of how it takes a big heart as well as a sharp mind to practice as a Social Security Disability lawyer.

There are disabled clients who are so desperately ill that they sabotage their Social Security Disability cases. Fortunately it is a rare occurrence, but it is a situation that definitely exists. Who would sabotage their case? I am not a fan of the generalization, but here it goes – these are people who are scared beyond reason, and often it has to do with an irrational fear of losing their children.

Today, I am going to discuss a woman I represented at her Social Security Disability Hearing yesterday. Ms. X has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, hypertension, obesity, degenerative disc disease, depression and anxiety. These conditions can certainly be disabling. However, in this instance, I believe Ms. X has another condition that has yet to be diagnosed. I believe she has an organic brain disease. I do not know what happened, but I believe something has happened that has caused her IQ to decline drastically.

Ms. X has a college education and served in the military. She is twice divorced and has two children; both children are mentally challenged and receive disability benefits. Ms. X filed for disability benefits several years ago and previously appeared at an SSDI hearing. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled that she was not severely disabled, and he based his decision primarily on the Claimant’s testimony regarding her tremendous care of her sons.
Her sons do need a great deal of attention, and she gives them all she can. However, what she did not tell the ALJ at that initial hearing is that most of their care is performed by aides supplied to her children in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening, seven days a week. I did meet one of her sons. He is a sweet boy who behaves much like a well-spoken four year old; he is a teenager.

The first ALJ never heard about the extraordinary help she has for the children, never heard of her limited responsibilities for her children, never heard about the fact that she worked many part-time jobs around her sons’ schedules, never heard that even after her hours were reduced at her last job, she was still missing days due to pain and making many mistakes. Why did the ALJ not hear all the evidence? She left the ALJ with a false impression of her abilities because she was afraid he had the power to take away her children. She was too fearful to tell the full truth, and sabotaged her initial case as a result.

I was assigned to Ms. X’s new case for disability benefits about a month ago. I reviewed the file, and called her. I explained who I am, and reminded her of her upcoming SSD hearing. She had forgotten. I found her to have a very distracted mind, but I had no idea of her fear that she might lose her children. I had many medical records to review. I also had a report from a doctor, a primary care physician, stating that she has severe problems with concentration. This report was my only hint of what might be going on with her.

During the last few days before the hearing, I spoke to Ms. X no less than three times. I did my usual preparations for myself and the client. Together we filled out some forms that she had forgotten or neglected to complete. I was set for the hearing, but unsure of how she was going to get there. Especially since I was driving nearly 200 miles to get to her disability hearing, I wanted to make sure she would be present. I knew she could not tolerate a drive of that distance; I needed to make sure she had a ride.

The day before the hearing, I called Ms. X, we had another pleasant conversation. She tried to assure me that she would get a ride from a neighbor. Luckily the hearing was in the afternoon. I told her I would call her the next day at 9am, while I was on my way to her hearing, to see whether she did in fact have a ride.

I called. She did not answer the telephone. I called a half hour later, she did not answer. I called at least three more times. She did not answer the telephone. At that point in my journey, I had to make a choice. I could continue my drive and get to the hearing 2 hours early, or I could detour an hour and look for my client at her home. I detoured.

Fortunately, she did not live in a bad neighborhood. In fact, she lives in a relatively new townhouse community. It was very pleasant. I found her apartment, and rang the bell. I did not have much hope of an answer, but I felt that I had to give her the best opportunity to be heard. She did answer the door.

I arrived at her home an hour and a half before her hearing. Her hearing was to be held in a city an hour’s drive away. She appeared at the door wearing a bathrobe; I had awoken her from her nap. Her son was in the living room crowded with stacks of laundry, a bicycle and a bounty of other materials I was not interested in identifying. He was playing with pictures from a child’s movie from 10 years ago. I told her I was there to drive her to the hearing. She was not grateful. She was fearful. I told her to get dressed, we needed to be at the hearing in an hour. She agreed. She called a neighbor who was luckily available to watch her son.

As she dressed, I spoke with her son. We talked about the pictures he was playing with. I remembered the movie because my daughter, a year older than this boy, had loved that movie when it came out ten years before. Like this boy, she played with pictures of these characters, but she was five at the time.

Ms. X took about ten minutes to ready herself, and we left. Usually when I do a favor for a client, they are overly appreciative. Here, Ms. X did not appreciate my efforts in any way. She seemed frightened of me. I was annoyed at first. She had hired our firm to represent her in her Social Security disability claim, and she was not even going to have the courtesy to call me to let me know that she was not going to be there. I thought it was amazingly rude that she had known that I would be calling her and that she would not pick up the telephone. I kept my temper, and inquired how she had intended to get to the hearing had I not arrived. She said that she had planned to call the cab company to pick her up. I was in disbelief. Then, I learned what fear and misunderstanding had done to her. She started crying that the judge was going to take her kids away from her. She thought I was from the government and that I was dragging her to family court to have her children removed from her home.

I was shocked. I had spoken to this woman several times, others from my office had spoken to her, and she had hired us to represent her. But, she had become deluded and fearful and was panicked. I tried my best to calm her. I explained that the ALJ was not charged with making a decision about her children. I explained that my understanding is that she is a very good mother, and that she gets a lot of support to care for her children. I told her that I would tell that to the ALJ, but that the ALJ’s primary concern is whether she is disabled from working under the Social Security rules. No more, and no less.

She seemed to relax a bit. At least, she stopped crying for a while. She was scared that the ALJ would ask her too many questions and that she would not remember dates and times. I told her that all she is expected to do is tell the truth, and remember to the best of her ability.
We got to the hearing office. Generally I do not drive clients to their hearings. I only do it when I feel safe with the person, when they do not smoke and when they absolutely have no other way of getting there. I did not feel safe with Ms. X, but she does not smoke, so with 2 of out three of my rules met, I drove her. When I do drive clients to their hearing, I generally will drop them off at the front door of the building and then I find parking. Here, I did not trust that Ms. X would be safe alone. I thought she might wander off.

We made it to the 5th floor, and met the security guard. He instructed us to make use of the coat rack. My client put down her bag. Within moments she was thrown into a panic. She had forgotten what she did with the bag, and starting crying and screaming that someone had stolen it. Fortunately, I found it quickly under her coat and gave it to her. Nevertheless, she kept insisting someone had stolen it.

When called, I asked to speak with the ALJ alone. The ALJ was receptive. Before the ALJ started questioning my client, I wanted her to understand what I had observed that morning. The ALJ was very understanding. We had never met before but she struck me as the type of judge you always hope for – kind, patient and intelligent.

My client came in. Questioning began. My client asked the ALJ twice during the hearing what this proceeding was about and where she was. We gave her a full explanation both time. I am not sure whether she forgot or whether she just did not trust our answer. Questioning continued. The ALJ ruled from the bench that she would award benefits. The client remained impassive, but was glad to be allowed to leave.

I had already told Ms. X that I would be driving her home, but she still cried that she had no way of getting home. I explained to her what the decision meant. She did not trust what I said. I bought her sons their favorite candy bars. She was happy about that. I drove her home. She slept most of the way.

I was happy the day was over. I hope Ms. X will improve. I am glad we prevented her from sabotaging her case again.