Monday, June 24, 2013

Can a Creditor Garnish Your Social Security Disability Benefits?

It is common for SSDI and/or SSI beneficiaries to contact their Social Security Disability Lawyers when they are hounded by bill collectors.

Social Security Disability Lawyers are often asked whether credit card, mortgage or auto loan companies can garnish Social Security Benefits to pay a debt. 

Fortunately, the answer to this question is: No.

If a creditor other than the federal government tries to garnish your Social Security benefits, you should inform them that such actions are in violation of federal law.  Section 207 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 407)

Section 207 bars garnishment of your benefits.  It can also be used as a defense if your benefits are incorrectly garnished.  Our responsibility as Social Security Disability Lawyers is to prevent abuses from creditors against Social Security beneficiaries.  We get a lot of calls regarding these type of problems and can't always provide those in need with legal assistance.  If you live in Connecticut and creditors have tried to garnish your Social Security Disability benefits, we suggest you contact the Connecticut Department of Banking and complete the form on this link.  In you live in Massachusetts, you can consider filing a complaint with the Attorney General's Public Inquiry and Assistance Center.

NOTE: That Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments cannot be levied or garnished.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Will Medical Marijuana Hurt Your Chances of Obtaining Social Security Disability Benefits?

Over the past few weeks, I have been asked --on several occasions--, to comment on the implications of the use of medical marijuana in the Social Security Disability process.  This is definitely a hot new issue.  I'm sure that there is going to be a lot of debate on Medical Marijuana (MMJ) and SSDI in the upcoming months.  I'm particularly curious as to what other Social Security lawyers are telling their clients and whether disability claimants are fully aware of the possible implications of MMJ in their cases.   
I must confess that I am not particularly thrilled about the use of marijuana by some of my clients, regardless of whether the use is medical or recreational.  Its not that I'm old fashioned or uncool.  (Am I?)  It's that I'm a pragmatic kind of guy.  My role as a Social Security Disability lawyer is to obtain for my clients the maximum amount of benefits allowed by law, not to make political statements or to advocate in favor of alternative medical treatments.    
Due to these concerns brought recently to my attention, I would like to use this week's blog to discuss some of the pros and cons of medical marijuana in the context of SSDI or SSI cases.
Some of the Cons...
  • Bear in mind that Social Security is a federal program and that federal law does not recognize the use of medical marijuana.  Understand that under federal law the use of marijuana is still illegal.  Social Security judges (ALJ's) are required to abide by federal law.  Potentially, an ALJ could find that a claimant and/or a doctor who repeatedly breaks federal law is not totally credible.
  • I usually like to argue that medication side effects are contributing to my client's disability.  Given the fact that marijuana is not a legal medication under federal law, I don't think I'm going to be able to argue that being constantly "high on pot" is a symptom that contributes to my client's disability.   
  • I believe that, in many instances, medical marijuana can be very detrimental to a claimant who is seeking to obtain benefits based on a mental disability.  I often argue that my client's unusual behavior is evidence that he or she suffers from mental illness.  Unfortunately, if a person is under the influence of MMJ, it might be harder to asses the real reason why the person is acting strangely.  Keep in mind that there is a the popular belief that people act "weird" when they smoke marijuana if even when that is not the case in most circumstances.
Some of the Pros
  • I am convinced that, in some instances, pot is the only medication that really works.  Under these circumstances, the claimant must be prepared to tell the judge that he or she tried all other traditional medications available and that none of them offered any relief of the symptoms.  This scenario could ultimately bolster a Social Security Disability claim.  However, it is important to point out that under these circumstances, the claimant must have sufficient medical records to be able to make this argument.
  • Finally, under the latest Social Security ruling on drug addiction and alcoholism (SSR 13-2p), marijuana use is not material to a Social Security Disability case unless its use is considered an addiction and is "a contributing factor material to the claimant's disability".   (See my blog from Feb. 25, 2013)  I would argue that under this ruling, a judge cannot consider medical marijuana at all when making a decision, unless there is evidence that the marijuana use raises to the level of an addiction and that marijuana is contributing to the claimant's limitations. 

Monday, June 10, 2013


As a Social Security Lawyer, I am frequently asked whether a person's eligibility for benefits is ever reviewed again sometime after benefits have been granted.  In Connecticut and Massachusetts many Social Security claimants mistakenly believe that Social Security benefits are “permanently” granted to claimants.  I must caution Social Security Disability beneficiaries that this notion is incorrect.

Social Security periodically reviews your disability or blindness to decide if you are still disabled or blind. If you are no longer disabled or blind, Social Security will stop your benefits.

Social Security calls this review a Continuing Disability Review (CDR). As a Social Security Disability Lawyer in Connecticut and Massachusetts, I often get nervous calls from Social Security Disability beneficiaries who act totally surprised when they get a “CDR” letter from Social Security. 
It is important to note that the law requires the SSA to perform a medical CDR approximately every three years, unless the agency determines that you have a condition that is expected to improve sooner than that. However, if you have a condition that is not expected to improve, the SSA will still review your case, but not as often as every three years.

If you are eligible as a child, during the month before the month you attain age 18, Social Security will redetermine whether you are disabled. When Social Security does the CDR at age 18, it uses the rules used for adults who are filing new applications for SSI.
If you have any questions about a continuing disability review you should consult with a Social Security Disability Lawyer.  As you all know, I am always available for a free initial consultation on Social Security Cases in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Qualifiying for SSDI / SSI with Scleroderma

June is Scleroderma Awareness Month!
A diagnosis of scleroderma does not automatically entitle a person to disability benefits. The Social Security Administration recognizes scleroderma as a potentially disabling illness and includes scleroderma in their listing of impairments. Nonetheless, if you have been diagnosed with scleroderma and the disease is affecting your activities of daily living, it is a good idea to be proactive and schedule a consultation with a Social Security Disability Lawyer. We are always available for free consultations and don’t mind learning about a person’s case well in advance of the actual date of the “onset of disability” (the date when you can no longer work). We believe that a conscientious disability attorney should be willing provide you with a free consultation, particularly when you suffer from a serious condition such as scleroderma.
One of the reasons why we like to talk to clients well in advance of filing for Social Security Disability Benefits is that, in order to successfully obtain social security benefits, an applicant must have the support of his or her doctor(s). Consequently, we urge our clients to ask their doctors if they are willing to fill up social security questionnaires and provide letters in support of their patient’s applications for social security benefits. Unfortunately, many doctors don’t cooperate with their clients and refuse to fill up these forms regardless of the severity of their patient’s condition.
There are two basic ways that a person can qualify for Social Security benefits due to scleroderma. An individual can meet the requirements of a listing set out in Social Security's list of qualifying impairments or show that he or she is unable to work.
The list of impairments is essentially a "blue book" used by the Social Security Administration to determine whether an individual meets the Social Security definition of disability. If a person’s condition “meets or equals” the listing, then that person is automatically deemed to be disabled. The listing for scleroderma (systemnic sclerosis) is contained in Section 14.04 of the listing:
14.04  Systemic sclerosis (scleroderma).As described in 14.00D3. With:
A. Involvement of two or more organs/body systems, with:
1. One of the organs/body systems involved to at least a moderate level of severity; and
2. At least two of the constitutional symptoms or signs (severe fatigue, fever, malaise, or involuntary weight loss).
B. With one of the following:
1. Toe contractures or fixed deformity of one or both feet, resulting in the inability to ambulate effectively as defined in 14.00C6; or
2. Finger contractures or fixed deformity in both hands, resulting in the inability to perform fine and gross movements effectively as defined in 14.00C7; or
3. Atrophy with irreversible damage in one of both lower extremities, resulting in the inability to ambulate effectively as defined in 14.00C6; or
4. Atrophy with irreversible damage in both upper extremities, resulting in the inability to perform fine and gross movements effectively as defined in 14.00C7.
C. Raynaud’s phenomenon, characterized by:
1. Gangrene involving at least two extremities; or
2. Ischemia with ulcerations of toes or fingers, resulting in the inability to ambulate effectively or to perform fine and gross movements effectively as defined in 14.00C6 and 14.00C7.
D. Repeated manifestations of systemic sclerosis (scleroderma), with at least two of the constitutional symptoms or signs (severe fatigue, fever, malaise, or involuntary weight loss) and one of the following at the marked level:
1. Limitation of activities of daily living.
2. Limitation in maintaining social functioning.
3. Limitation in completing tasks in a timely manner due to deficiencies in concentration, persistence, or pace.
If your condition is severe but not at the same or equal level of severity as a medical condition on the list, then the Social Security Administration must determine if it interferes with your ability to do the work you did previously (during the last 15 years).
If you cannot do the work you did in the past 15 years, the Social Security Administration will see if you are able to adjust to other work. The Social Security Administration will consider your medical conditions and your age, education, past work experience and any transferable skills you may have. If you cannot adjust to other work, your claim will be approved. If you can adjust to other work, your claim will be denied.