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Owens v. Astrue

I have represented 2,000+ claimants at Social Security administrative hearings, in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, with a very high win rate. In 2008, I became a Certified Specialist in Social Security Disability Law by the National Board of Social Security Disability Advocacy. However, in that same year, October 23, 2008, I lost what I considered to be a strong Social Security case. The Appeals Council denied the request for review, and the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security on March 27, 2009.

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Mr. Owens had a myoclonic movement disorder. It was a clinical diagnosis and had no objective test. A clinical diagnosis is based on the treating physician’s observations of the patient as well as her medical expertise; there is nothing inappropriate about a diagnosis of this nature. It was my impression that the Commissioner had improperly substituted his judgment for that of the physicians.

The federal court could overturn the decision only if it found that it was not based on substantial evidence or that there was an error of law. There was no option for de novo review. The Court could reverse the Commissioner’s decision, but usually, the case would be sent back for a new hearing. Generally, the Court upheld the Commissioner’s decisions.

My professional judgment and analysis of the case led me to appeal the case at the District Court, Owens v. Astrue, No. 2:09-2239-JDT (W.D. Tenn.). I argued it was remarkable the ALJ would conclude Mr. Owens was not disabled when every medical opinion in the record concluded that he had significant functional limitations. Secondly, it was remarkable the ALJ concluded that Mr. Owens could do some type of sedentary work when the only vocational report in the record concluded that he did not have this capacity. Finally, it was remarkable the ALJ based his decision largely on Mr. Owens’s credibility when each opining physician and the vocational expert found Mr. Owens’ history to be credible.

Although credibility determinations are given substantial deference on appeal, my appraisal of this case was that the ALJ’s unfavorable decision could not withstand even minimal scrutiny and should be reversed as a serious error. On February 26, 2010, District Court Judge James D. Todd agreed. Judge Todd found that the record established that Mr. Owens was entitled to benefits without additional fact-finding. He remanded the case back to the Commissioner for an award. It was a powerful statement by the Judge and a complete victory for my client.

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