Administrative Judges Hearing Social Security HIV Disability Claims Shouldn't Play Doctor: ABIGAIL HERNANDEZ v. CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172454 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 14, 2016)

Court and Agency Decisions and Orders (including case law)

[The following summary is excerpted from LGBT Law notes, The LeGaL Foundation of the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York, January 2017, with thanks to Professor Arthur S. Leonard, New York Law School, Founder/Editor-in Chief, of LGBT Law Notes.]

A woman living with HIV and various addictions and dependencies who had not worked for more than 20 years when she applied for Social Security disability benefits won a ruling from U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox reversing an administrative law judge’s denial of benefits. Judge Cox remanded the case back to the agency for reconsideration, having found that the ALJ “improperly assessed the plaintiff’s allegations” by unduly heavy reliance on the written medical records and had failed to support his rejection of her treating physician’s opinion that she was disabled. Judge Cox scolded the ALJ for “playing doctor,” referring to his statement that “plaintiff consistently stated that she drank because she was depressed but he felt it was more likely that her drinking was a factor leading to her depression. The Seventh Circuit often criticizes ALJs for playing doctor,” she continued, “and the role is especially challenging in cases dealing with mental illness, which is commonly misunderstood. While it is possible that plaintiff’s alcohol use triggered her symptoms, but the ALJ was merely speculating and that’s not a valid basis for rejecting testimony.” ol. “This would certain seem to imbue her opinion with greater weight” than the agency’s doctors, Cox wrote, “but the ALJ ignored this factor.”  For a copy of the federal magistrate’s decision, contact Tosh Anderson, CHLP Program Manager, at tanderson@hivlawandpolicy.org.