Monday, February 24, 2014

Inability to Stoop or Bend and Social Security Disability

A person's inability to stoop could have great significance in the outcome of a Social Security Disability case.  This limitation should never be overlooked by claimants and their attorneys.  While limitations with respect to other activities such as walking, standing, sitting or lifting are important, I find that in many instances a person's inability to stoop can be crucial in getting Social Security to issue a determination that the claimant is disabled.
The Social Security Administration defines stooping as: "Bending the body downward and forward by bending spine at the waist, requiring full use of lower extremities and back muscles."  Claimants with lower back conditions (such as spinal fusions, degenerative disc disease or spinal stenosis) are the most likely to suffer from limitations in this area.
Social Security Ruling 96-9p provides that a complete inability to stoop significantly erodes the unskilled occupational base and usually results in a finding that the individual is disabled.  However, it must be emphasized that for there to be a determination that the person cannot perform unskilled sedentary work, the limitation with respect to stooping must be absolute.
In addition, Social Security Ruling 83-14 provides that in most medium and heavy jobs a person must be able to stoop from one third to two thirds of the work day.  Therefore, a person who is unable to stoop more than a third of the time, must be found to be unable to perform medium or heavy work.  This limitation could be a significant factor in winning cases for older claimants who have never had a light or sedentary job in the fifteen year period prior becoming disabled.
In light of the rules discussed in this blog posting, it is important for claimants to properly document any limitations that they might have with respect to stooping.  If possible, they should ask their doctors to comment how often they can or cannot stoop or bend in an eight hour day.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Disability Claims Involving Borderline Intellectual Functioning

Representing Social Security Disability clients with borderline intellectual functioning is something that I am particularly passionate about.  (Borderline intellectual functioning was formerly called "borderline mental retardation".)  I must confess that these cases can be very challenging and, at times, totally frustrating.  The main reason why these cases are so difficult is that determining a person's intelligence is a complicated matter. Test scores and psychological evaluations are very imprecise indicators of a person's ability to function.

Pursuant to Social Security Listing of Impairments 12.05, a person with "a valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 59 or less" is eligible for Social Security Disability benefits.  (Section 12.05 B of the listing)   For purposes of Social Security Disability, a person with an IQ of 59 or less is considered to have low intellectual functioning.  
The situation is a bit more complicated when a claimant obtains a score between 60 and 70.  For purposes of Social Security Disability, a score between 60 and 70 is considered "borderline intellectual functioning". Listing section 12.05 C states that a person is entitled to benefits if he or she has "A valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70 and a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant work-related limitation of function".  (Emphasis added.)  The important question in cases when a claimant scores between 60 and 70 is determining what constitutes "an additional and significant work-related limitations of function".  There has been much litigation regarding what this particular phrase means.  The Court of appeals of several circuits have defined this term as follows: "an impairment imposes a significant work-related limitation of function when its effect on a claimant's ability to perform basic work activities is more than slight or minimal.  See Fanning v. Bowen, 827 F.2d 631, 632-33 (9th Cir. 1987). (citing Pullen v. Bowen, 820 F.2d 105, 109 [4th Cir.1987]; Cook v. Bowen, 797 F.2d 687, 690 [8th Cir.1986]; Nieves v. Secretary of Human Services, 775 F.2d 12, 14 [1st Cir.1985]; Edwards by Edwards v. Heckler, 755 F.2d 1513, 1515 [11th Cir.1985].)  (See also District Court decision in  Magray v. Shalala, 880 F. Supp. 1278 (E.D. Wis. 1995))  Generally, this means that additional mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety in addition to an IQ between 60 and seventy might be considered an "additional significant work-related limitation" within the meaning of Social Security listing 12.05 C.  Other relatively common physical conditions might also be considered an additional work-related limitation.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Stage 4 Prostate Cancer One of 25 Conditions Added to the New Compassionate Allowances List

Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin recently announced  that the Social Security Administration's list of compassionate allowances has been updated to include 25 additional conditions.  The "compassionate allowances list" is an initiative within the SSA that identifies the most serious conditions which warrant an expedited review by the Agency.

The compassionate allowances program fast-tracks applications that clearly meet Social Security's requirements for disability benefits.  There are no special forms to be used when requesting a compassionate allowance.  Those who believe that their application meets one of the illnesses on the list must call their Social Security Field Office and make an informal request.  For a current list of conditions click here.

One of the most significant additions to the list, is the addition of stage 4 prostate cancer.  Congressman Elijah  (D-MD) praised the measure stating: “I am extremely pleased that the SSA has included Prostate Cancer in its Compassionate Allowance list—a decision that will save lives, and give more patients access to treatment options.” 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Are My Social Security Disability Benefits Taxable?

For the most part, Social Security Disability benefits are not taxed in their totality.  You will never have to pay federal taxes on more than 85% of your Social Security Disability benefits.  In most cases, you only have to pay taxes on your Social Security when you have other substantial income such as dividends, past wages or other taxable income.  Moreover, SSI payments are never taxed.  

As a general rule, you only have to pay federal taxes on your SSD benefits when you report more than $25,000 on your individual filling.  If you file jointly with your spouse, you will only have to pay taxes if your combined income is more than $32,000.

However, as I indicated before, you never have to pay taxes on 100% of your benefits.  For example, if you and your spouse have a combined income between $32,000 and $44,000 you only have to pay taxes on 50% of the Social Security Disability benefit.  If you and your spouse make more than $44,000, then you will have to pay taxes on 85% of your benefit.  

What about large retroactive payments received in 2013?  Fortunately, in 2013 many of our clients received large retro-payments (back pay).  Under these circumstances, your tax rate might be higher than usual because of the lump sum.   This is a tricky situation.   Fortunately, the IRS allows taxes on Social Security Disability retro payments to be spread out over previous tax years using the current tax return and  the good news is that you don't have to file an amended tax return for the prior years.  This will prevent you from paying higher taxes in 2013.  If you received a lump sum, you will see the amount entered in Box 3 of the 1099 form that Social Security will send you.  Apparently, it is easy to make a mistake when you try to figure out how to spread the lump sum payment by yourself.  For this reason, it might be a good idea to hire a tax professional to help you figure this out.  Worksheets provided in IRS publication 915 and tax preparation software can also be used to determine the tax liability of a large retroactive SSDI payment.  

Disclaimer:  I am a Social Security Disability Lawyer, not a tax lawyer or an accountant.  Please consult an expert in tax law for specific advise.