Justia Public Benefits Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Daugherty, an ALJ hearing disability-benefits applications for the Social Security Administration, took bribes. Conn, who represented many claimants, paid Daugherty $400 per favorable decision; Conn received $5,000 or more per case out of the benefits that Daugherty awarded. Four physicians, including Huffnagle, submitted evaluations to support Daugherty’s decisions, even if the applicant failed to appear for examination. Conn and Daugherty pleaded guilty to federal felonies. One of the physicians was convicted. Huffnagle died. The total cost of benefits granted by Daugherty exceeds $500 million. Following an investigation, a notice under 42 U.S.C. 1320a–8(l), set in motion a process for redetermination of the benefits awarded in connection with the scheme. In a suit under 42 U.S.C. 405(g), 1383(c)(3), Jaxson claimed that the ALJ who presided over his redetermination should have considered Huffnagle’s report but declined to do so only because an internal claims-processing manual and ruling say that an ALJ cannot accept evidence that the Inspector General found is likely a product of fraud. The Seventh Circuit affirmed a ruling in favor of Jaxson. Jaxson may have a hard time persuading an ALJ that there is not even “reason to believe” that Huffnagle’s report is fraudulent but he is entitled to try; 42 U.S.C. 405(b)(1), requires a “reasonable notice and opportunity for a hearing”, and “hearing” means a procedure at which both sides can present views on potentially dispositive matters. View "Jaxson v. Saul" on Justia Law

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Immigrants have historically been eligible for various public benefits and the receipt of those benefits, with limited exceptions did not jeopardize the immigrant’s chances of becoming a lawful permanent resident or citizen. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a new rule, intended to prevent immigrants whom the Executive Branch deems likely to receive any amount of public assistance, from entering the country or adjusting their status. The rule purports to implement the “public charge” provision of 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(4). The Seventh Circuit affirmed a preliminary injunction against the rule’s enforcement in favor of Cook County, Illinois. The county had standing because the law threatened immediate financial harm because it would cause immigrants to forego preventative health care. The interests of the county are among those protected or regulated by federal law. There is “abundant evidence” supporting the county’s interpretation of the “public charge provision” as being triggered only by long-term primary dependence and that provision does not provide DHS unfettered discretion. The rule is unlikely to survive “arbitrary and capricious” review; it is unclear how immigration officials are to make “public charge” predictions. Cook County lacks legal remedies for the harms imposed by the rule. View "Cook County v. Wolf" on Justia Law

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In October 2012, Jeske, working at a cemetery, was carrying a heavy casket when she stumbled, injuring her back. Four years later, she applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income based on disability; she claimed that back and spine problems, anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies made her unable to work. At a hearing, Jeske told the ALJ that she was 44 years old and lived with her husband and three sons. She changed the date on which she allegedly became disabled to more than a year after her injury because she had substantial gainful activity in 2013. She explained that she received treatment through a workers’ compensation program and her employer allowed her to work from home many days. When the doctor released her from treatment, Jeske’s boss no longer permitted her to work from home and she quit. Since then she has worked as a part-time security guard. The ALJ found Jeske not disabled under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 423(d), 1382c(3). The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The ALJ applied the proper standards and sufficiently explained the decision. Although the evidence showed Jeske suffered from limiting back pain, abundant evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that her condition lacked the requirements of a presumptively disabling impairment. The use of daily-living activities, to assess credibility and symptoms, was not improper. The evidence supported a conclusion that Jeske could perform light work with specific restrictions. View "Jeske v. Saul" on Justia Law

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Until 2010, Reinaas, now in his mid‐fifties, worked as a machine operator. He injured his spine and tore his rotator cuff on the job, and underwent two neck fusion surgeries. Reinaas planned to return to work but continued to suffer from severe headaches (treated with hydrocodone), shoulder pain, and a decreased range of motion. A neurologist diagnosed him with cervicogenic headaches, and his family doctor diagnosed “long term nuchal headaches” and “[p]ermanent pain syndrome post cervical fusion.” Dr. Bodeau, a Mayo Clinic occupational physician, opined that Reinaas could not return to his factory job and suggested surgical intervention. In 2013, Reinaas had shoulder surgery and attended physical therapy; he took naproxen and Vicodin for pain. Reinaas applied for social security disability benefits. Benefits were denied after state‐retained physicians reviewed his records and concluded that Reinaas’s accounts of his symptoms were not fully credible. Dr. Bodeau opined that Reinaas had “deteriorated significantly” and was “highly unlikely to successfully regain employment at any physical demand level.” The ALJ concluded that Reinaas was not disabled. In determining Reinaas’s residual functional capacity, the ALJ afforded great weight to the opinions of the two non‐examining physicians and gave little weight to Dr. Bodeau’s opinion, explaining that Bodeau lacked knowledge of Social Security disability rules and that his report was based on subjective complaints of questionable credibility. The Seventh Circuit vacated. Substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s decision to discount the treating physician’s opinion and the ALJ did not adequately evaluate Reinaas’s subjective complaints. View "Reinaas v. Saul" on Justia Law

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Under the Medicaid program, 42 U.S.C. 1396, states must ensure that certain medical assistance is available to all eligible beneficiaries. Illinois administers its Medicaid program through HFS. For managed care programs, HFS contracts with Medicaid managed care organizations (MCOs), which a flat monthly fee per patient. The MCOs pay providers for services rendered to Medicaid beneficiaries. Plaintiffs, consultants who offer business services to Illinois nursing homes and supportive living facilities, sued on behalf of a class of nursing home residents entitled to Medicaid benefits, alleging violations of Title XIX of the Social Security Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. They alleged that the MCOs failed to process timely payments for claims submitted by nursing homes—the plaintiff‐consultants’ clients—to the MCOs, putting the resident‐beneficiaries at risk of being discharged from the facilities. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The regulation cited by plaintiffs does not permit authorized representatives to bring civil lawsuits on behalf of Medicaid beneficiaries so the plaintiffs lacked standing. The residents would be unlikely to benefit if the plaintiffs won; they apparently filed suit in an effort to push the state to pay outstanding bills owed to the consultants’ clients. View "Bria Health Services, LLC v. Eagleson" on Justia Law

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Martin, a 67-year-old woman, sought Social Security Disability benefits. Her persistent back pain stems from two car accidents; she also suffers from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and PTSD. These conditions caused Martin to stop working in 2009. Before then she had worked as a home health aide, data entry clerk, and administrative assistant. An ALJ determined that Martin’s severe impairments left her capable of performing only a limited range of sedentary jobs. The district court remanded for a more thorough consideration of Martin’s mental health problems. A new ALJ then found that Martin had no physical limitations whatsoever and declined to award benefits. The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding the second ALJ’s decision not supported by substantial evidence, and took “the rare step of ordering the award of benefits.” The court rejected Martin’s argument that the ALJ’s residual functional capacity determination failed to translate her mental health symptoms into limitations related to concentration, persistence, and pace but the record is clear that Martin’s physical limitations leave her unable to perform any work above the light level. Given her restricted range of motion and symptoms of pain, light exertion would likely be a challenge for Martin because it requires “a good deal of walking or standing.” View "Martin v. Saul" on Justia Law

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Prater was denied Social Security Disability Insurance benefits when she was 47-years-old and weighed about 400 pounds at 64 inches tall. X-rays showed mild-to-moderate degenerative joint disease in her feet and knees and degenerative disc disease in her spine. She was diabetic and had a history of gout. Prater stated that at her last job she experienced pain and fatigue “all the time.” None of her treating physicians indicated that she must alternate between sitting and standing. A vocational expert testified that a hypothetical individual with Prater's vocational background, education, and age, limited to sedentary work with restrictions on lifting, carrying, climbing, driving, and more, who could stand and walk no more than two hours of an eight-hour day and would need to change positions during the day but could remain in place for at least 30 minutes, whether sitting or standing, could not do any of Prater’s past jobs but could perform other jobs available in the national economy. The ALJ concluded that Prater was not disabled, finding that she had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work with numerous restrictions; that her statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely consistent” with the evidence; and that, although Prater was morbidly obese, “her physical examination was otherwise unremarkable.” The Appeals Council, the district court, and the Seventh Circuit upheld the decision. The sit/stand limitation in the RFC assessment is not too vague. The ALJ’s finding that she could sit and stand for 30 minutes at a time does not lack medical support; the ALJ did not improperly discredit her testimony that she could remain in position for only 20 minutes. View "Prater v. Saul" on Justia Law

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For four years, nurse practitioner Jordan treated Clanton’s severe hypertension. Jordan, an employee of the U.S. Public Health Service, failed to properly educate Clanton about his disease or to monitor its advancement. Clanton’s hypertension developed into Stage V kidney disease requiring dialysis and a transplant. Clanton successfully sued the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The court determined that Clanton had not contributed at all to his own injuries, noting that Clanton did not understand why it was important to take his medication and to attend appointments. The court awarded $30 million in damages. The Seventh Circuit vacated, finding that the court erred in its analysis of comparative negligence. Clanton’s subjective understanding does not end the inquiry. Illinois law requires the court to take the additional step of comparing Clanton’s understanding of his condition to that of a reasonable person in his situation. Clanton was in the position of a person whose caregiver failed to provide information about the severity of his condition but he had external clues that he was seriously unwell: two employment-related physicals showed that he had dangerously high blood pressure. The court upheld the court’s method of calculating damages and agreed that Clanton’s Medicare benefits are collateral to his damages award under Illinois law, so the government is not entitled to a partial offset. View "Clanton v. United States" on Justia Law

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Crump applied for social security disability benefits based on her long history of numerous mental health impairments, including bipolar disorder and polysubstance abuse disorder. An administrative law judge denied benefits, finding that Crump, despite her severe impairments, could perform work limited to simple and repetitive tasks. The district court affirmed. The Seventh Circuit vacated. The ALJ did not adequately account for Crump’s difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace in the workplace. An ALJ generally may not rely merely on catch-all terms like “’simple, repetitive tasks’” because there is no basis to conclude that they account for problems of concentration, persistence or pace. In addition, observing that a person can perform simple and repetitive tasks says nothing about whether the individual can do so on a sustained basis. Beyond disregarding the Vocational Expert’s opinion in response to a second hypothetical, the ALJ gave short shrift to the medical opinions of Crump’s treating psychiatrist. View "Crump v. Saul" on Justia Law

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Krell, a former ironworker, applied for Social Security disability benefits. Krell was notified that a vocational expert would testify at his hearing and that Krell had the right to request a subpoena for documents or testimony “that you reasonably need to present your case.” Krell’s counsel requested a subpoena to require the vocational expert to produce documents upon which the expert may rely in forming opinions, including statistics, reports, surveys, summaries, work product, and a description of the methodologies used by publishers or compilers of the statistics. The ALJ did not respond. At the hearing, the ALJ denied the request, reasoning that it had not specified what the documents would show and why these facts could not be shown without a subpoena and that counsel could challenge the testimony post‐hearing. During cross‐examination, the vocational expert stated that to determine available job numbers, he relied on Wisconsin occupational projections produced by the Department of Workforce Development. Krell made no post‐hearing challenge. The ALJ found that Krell was disabled and entitled to benefits, but only as of 2014, rather than 2011. Based on the expert’s testimony, the ALJ concluded that up to 2014, Krell was able to perform work existing in significant numbers in the economy. The Social Security Appeals Council denied review. The district court concluded that the ALJ had erred in denying Krell’s subpoena request. The Seventh Circuit reversed. While Krell’s case was pending, the Supreme Court held (Biestek) that a vocational expert is not categorically required to produce his supporting data. Krell advanced no reason why it was necessary for the expert to produce his underlying sources. View "Krell v. Saul" on Justia Law