Grand Rapids Disability Seminar

On June 05, 2015, The Social Security Lawyers section for the State Bar of Michigan held its annual Grand Rapids seminar on the campus of Grand Valley State University. The seminar featured four speakers: Attorney Cliff Farrell, Dr. Natalie Wallace, Dr. Oren Mason, and Administrative Law Judge Paul W Jones. Although road construction caused problems for those attending the event, it was worth the trouble. Even the most seasoned disability attorneys were able to take away valuable information that will certainly assist their disabled clients.

Cliff Farrell is a well-known and highly regarded attorney with an extensive knowledge of Social Security disability law. He spoke about Social Security’s revised rules and regulations that are now lovingly referred to as the “all evidence rule.” It appears as if Social Security promulgated this rule in response to a few bad actors who seemingly had, or thought they had, the authority or obligation to withhold unfavorable evidence from the administrative law judge in any given matter. The new rule seems to take away any perceived wiggle room with regard to the submission of evidence. Now each representative and each claimant is obligated to inform Social Security where evidence exists that relates to a person’s claim for Social Security disability benefits. Unfortunately, the rule seems so incredibly broad that many attorneys feel that everybody is being punished for the sins of a few. Attorney Farrell noted that this recent rule change has already increased the administrative burden on his practice. The strict reading of the rule would have attorneys informing Social Security every time a client calls and says anything has changed with respect to their mental or physical conditions – because any change could broadly be interpreted to relate to that person’s claim for benefits.

Is an attorney obligated to inform Social Security if client calls and says his medication has been changed from 10 mg per day to 12 mg per day? Some would say by following the new rule, the attorney would then need to inform the Social Security Administration that there is a new source of potential evidence that relates to the individual’s claim for benefits. Alternatively, the attorney would have the ability to procure and submit that evidence to Social Security as well.

The increased burden this new policy has placed on my office is very real. And the increased burden on the Administration as a whole must be astronomical. For instance, if an individual goes to the hospital, am I obligated to request all records? Even if those records contain hundreds and hundreds of pages of nursing notes, or urine output notes, or even EKG graphs? Does the judge in any given case really want to see that stuff? As one judge recently put it, the lines go up and the lines go down but beyond that, it’s meaningless. That what summaries are for. That’s why there is a nice, big space for treating physicians to list their impressions and observations.

Dr. Natalie Wallace, a board-certified forensic psychiatrist, spoke about mental disorders, and provided in depth analysis of both positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia. She spoke to the need for independent medical reviews to properly assess functional limitations in patients. She spoke about the signs and symptoms of schizophrenia, and how their timing and presentation can be used to forecast the severity and likely outcomes. Cases involving schizophrenia are some of the most interesting cases that I’ve had the opportunity to work on, but they are extremely difficult because a common part of the condition involves noncompliance with medication regimens (and often problems with substance abuse). As you can imagine, Social Security looks down upon individuals who “choose” not to follow their physicians’ orders to take medication as prescribed. Dr. Wallace also spoke about other common characteristics of the disease which impact an individual’s ability to work competitive, full-time employment, on a regular and continuing basis.

Dr. Oren Mason spoke about ADHD in kids and adults. One of the things I found to be most interesting about his presentation was that based on functional MRI results, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder might be more appropriately named attention absence hyperactivity disorder. Dr. Mason spoke about the past and present diagnostic criteria of the disorder. He spoke about several therapies, including medication, community assistance, and the use of incentives to get people afflicted with ADHD more in line with what society expects from its productive citizens. Sadly the data suggest that those individuals with ADHD will have a much higher rate of joblessness and divorce. The data also suggests that these individuals have shorter life expectancies, not necessarily due to the disorder, but perhaps related to the comorbid conditions. It is estimated that ADHD plays a large role in thousands of motor vehicle accidents every year. ADHD also seems to be related to over 1000 suicides per year. 

Administrative Law Judge Paul W Jones spoke to section members about his views on what makes a good Social Security disability case. Judge Jones indicated his philosophy on medical opinions, and how treating sources can effectively describe their patients functional limitations. Judge Jones talk highlighted the difficulty in evaluating cases where the diagnosis is not based on objective medical evidence, but instead based on signs and symptoms and testing. Unfortunately, almost all psychological problems are based on diagnoses that are made using subjective evidence (although Dr. Wallace and Dr. Mason both referred to objective test results relating to certain mental disorders – although use of these techniques is quite rare and prohibitively expensive). Additionally, disorders like fibromyalgia, as the judge put it, are highly subjective. He indicated that an individual could, in order to get diagnosed with fibromyalgia, simply say ouch each time trigger points were tested. While I believe that’s a very cynical view of disability claimants, a practically insulting view of physicians, it is helpful to know what your judge thinks about your conditions. Judge Jones indicated his preference for early briefs and the timely submission of evidence. His thoughts about the “all evidence rule” tended to contradict the actual rule itself, because in his eyes submitting the same piece of evidence from two separate sources shows that the claimant’s rap isn’t paying attention (while a strict reading of the rule may require the submission multiple times).

On a side note, I had a client crying while she told me that I understood her ADHD better that her doctors ever have. I am sure I don't understand it better, but I am good at articulating what I know about ADHD. And I had a lot of time to spend with her while we prepared for her hearing, unlike most busy physicians. While I take her tearful statement as a compliment, I need to thank Dr. Mason for sharing that knowledge and presenting it in such a way that it really stuck with me.

Benefits Getting Tougher to Obtain

If you have a Social Security case pending at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, you might want to review the statistics found at The site shows Grand Rapids as the toughest office in the state, with a 39% approval rate if you exclude dismissals. I don't place much value on the individual judge reviews, which seem to be mostly zero star or five star ratings, presumably based on the reviewer's individual outcome with that ALJ. 


I wanted to highlight some of our recent wins.  I always try to remember that no two cases are the same, but after a while, you start to see the same conditions over and over again.  While getting a big check for past-due benefits is nice, for most clients it still does not take away the pain of being wrongfully denied benefits on a SSI or disability application.  Too often the initial denial leads to the loss of a place to live, the loss of a vehicle, the loss of insurance, and living with no financial certainty.

1.  Fully Favorable Decision is a case involving a gentleman who was left with a traumatic brain injury and memory impairment after a motor vehicle accident.  After the car accident, he developed depression due to his decreased ability to work and the because of the constant struggles he faced from not being able to provide for his family.  We took his case on appeal and were able to get him over $15,000 in back benefits.

2.  Fully Favorable Decision for a single parent with chronic pain syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, and panic disorder.  The case was previously denied by a judge.  We handled the new case from the application forward and were able to obtain a victory for this single parent.

3.   Fully Favorable Decision for a younger person with uncontrolled type 1 diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, and diabetic retinopahty.  This person’s condition got progressively worse every day because no health insurance was available.  We were able to prove that this person has been disabled for over four years.  A victory here meant that this person would instantly get the medical insurance necessary to take control of the diabetes, and hopefully get back into the workforce.  Past due benefits were over $30,000.

4.  Fully favorable decision for a 51 year old woman with degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, spondylolisthesis, and a bulging lumbar disc.  Our work proved that she was unable to work a full-time job for several years.  Result: medical insurance, a monthly disability payment, and approximately $39,000 in past-due benefits.

Did you know that attorney B. Thomas Golden handles Social Security disability and SSI appeals?  He also handles applications, hearings, and Appeals Council appeals.  He has offices in Ionia, Michigan and in Lowell, Michigan. You can call today for a free consultation, and there is never a fee unless we win your case.  Call today at (616) 897-2900 for the Lowell office, (616) 527-9700 for the Ionia office, or toll-free at (855) 774-9467.  Let’s get you all the benefits you deserve.

Social Security: Even the Dead Can Work

The Social Security Administration just denied a disability application for one of my clients who died several months ago. In SSA’s great wisdom, being dead was not severe enough of a condition to prevent my client from working. They did, however, invite her to contact Social Security if her condition gets worse.

Disability Discharge of Student Loans

The material below is from a presentation attorney Thomas Golden gave to attendees at the Social Security Lawyers Section of the State Bar of Michigan February 2014 seminar in Lansing, Michigan. While it is important to know what it takes to get a discharge of student loans based on disability, it is also important to know when a disability discharge may cause more harm than good.

This presentation covers the following topics:

  • What loans are eligible for a disability discharge?
  • What information is needed?
  • How do I apply for a discharge of my student loans?
  • Who can help me apply for a disability discharge?
  • What to do if your loans are discharged.
  • Options available if your request is denied.
  • Requirements to keep your student loan discharge.
  • Ways to lose your discharge.
  • Why winning is not always a win.
  • Alternative ways to lower your student loan payment.

Discharging Student Loans because of Disability

Under federal law, individuals with federal student loans can have their obligation discharged due to disability.  There are three basic ways to get your federal student loans discharged because of your disability.

1.  The Veterans Administration (VA) has determined that you are unemployable.

2.  You have one or more medically determinable physical or mental impairments that

a.  can be expected to result in death, or

b.  have lasted for a continuous period of not less than 60 months, or

c.  can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 60 months

3.  You have been awarded Social Security Disability or SSI benefits and the Social Security Administration (SSA) has determined that medical improvement is not expected.

While the third paragraph above was implemented in the summer of 2013 to make this process smoother, it is not much help in most cases.  The vast majority of disability approvals by SSA result in reviews more frequently that every five years, which is the threshold established by the Department of Education to have your student loans eliminated using your Social Security disability decision.

Wait Times Dropping for Michigan Social Security Appeals

The Social Security offices on the west side and mid Michigan are moving cases very quickly compared to past years.  The three offices I commonly have disability hearings at all have wait times of less than one year.  As of December 31, 2013 here are the wait times, defined as the time between the hearing request date and the date the hearing is held:

Grand Rapids: 8 months.

Lansing: 10 months.

Mount Pleasant: 11 months.

While lower wait times are great for a number of reasons, it also means that having an attorney is more important than ever.  A good Social Security disability attorney is going to make sure your case is prepared for hearing as soon as possible.  A good attorney is going to update your medical records as soon as he or she has access to your Social Security file and start a dialogue with your medical providers to make sure your case is as strong as it can be.


Get Your Date Last Insured Before you Apply for Social Security Disability

I tend to think that the most important thing a person can do before filing your application for Social Security Disability benefits is to contact his or her local Social Security office and find out what that person’s date last insured is.  This date is also known as the DLI.

Your DLI is important to an application for disability benefits because for an individual to eventually win a disability case that person needs to prove he or she was unable to work a full-time job on or before the date last insured.

This especially important to individuals who have not worked consistently over the last several years.  Pretend that Mary had a car accident in 2007 and her physical health slowly declined until she was no longer working at all in 2010.  Mary should contact Social Security to find out her DLI so that she knows the exact date she needs to prove her disability by.  Mary found out her DLI was 12/31/2011.  Even though she applied for disability in September of 2012, she had to make sure that she proved her inability to work to on or before 12/31/2011.

The best way to get your DLI is to call your local office  and ask (click here to get find out your local SSA office’s phone number).  I usually recommend that individuals call and get their DLI and earnings record.  The earnings record is a printout that show what earnings were reported to SSA during your working life.  When a person applies for disability or SSI that person should really check out their earnings record too.  Social Security used to send them out every year.  Now you can view a version of your earnings history online by going straight to Social Security’s website.

Sometimes the local office will give callers a hard time about releasing this information.  I am not sure why, but I usually advise my clients to simply say ok, and call back a few minutes later.  This usually results in a person providing the information needed.

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New Phone Number

Call Tom Golden By B. Thomas Golden.

Hey everybody, we have added a toll-free phone number to our Lowell, Michigan and Ionia, Michigan offices.  If you want to speak about your Social Security disability or SSI case, please try out our new phone number at 855-SSI-WINS.  In just numbers, that is 855-774-9467.  Give us a call today to schedule your free consultation.

The majority of our clients are from the Ionia County, Kent County, and Montcalm County areas.

Finding Direction After Disability

Please take a few minutes and watch this video about one woman’s story of overcoming a catastrophic injury and finding new opportunities in a new life.  It deals with one of the most frustrating aspects of my job. When people who have worked their entire adult lives become disabled, they often become depressed. The physical pain and fatigue are compounded by the inability to earn a full-time income, or any income at all in a lot of cases. We get a lot of self worth by providing for ourselves and our families. When that ability to work is taken away, the adjustment period is excruciating.

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