In Penrod v. Astrue, the District Court for the Middle District of Florida is the latest to tackle the question of a Social Security judge's responsibility to fully develop the factual record in considering a disability benefits claim.
Plaintiff Eric Penrod - a former welder/fabricator and mechanic with a high school education - filed a Social Security disability benefits claim, asserting that he's unable to work due to leg and ankle injuries, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and shoulder arthritis as well as depression and anxiety. The ankle and leg injuries are the result of two car accidents. He has suffered from arthritis for 10-15 years and underwent surgery for the carpal tunnel in the 90s.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) initially denied the claim and again on reconsideration. At an administrative hearing before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Penrod testified that he can barely walk on the right leg because it constantly feels like it is asleep and that he typically keeps the leg elevated to avoid swelling. He also indicated that his hands occasionally go numb as a result of the carpal tunnel. An SSA vocational expert (VE), a vocation rehabilitation professional who provides advice to an ALJ regarding a claimant's ability to perform any type of work activity, testified that a hypothetical person of Penrod's age, experience and physical and mental limitations would be able to do manual assembly and production inspection jobs which are available in the national and local economy.
At the close of the hearing, the ALJ indicated that the record should be updated by scheduling Penrod for orthopedic and psychological consultative examinations to determine the current extent of his impairments. He indicated that the SSA would schedule these exams and that a letter notifying Penrod of the time and date of the exams would be mailed to Penrod's mother's residence (Penrod was homeless at the time of the hearing). These exams never took place. According to Penrod, he was out of state during the time for which the exams were originally scheduled and he never heard from his attorney, who told Penrod that he would request to schedule the exams at a later date. The ALJ issued a decision six weeks after the hearing in which he found that Penrod is not disabled for benefits purposes because he is capable of performing the jobs identified by the VE.
The Middle District rejected Penrod's request to overturn the ALJ's decision because it was not based on a complete record. The court noted that its role is simply to determine whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence. In so doing, the court explained that an ALJ "has a basic duty to develop a full and fair record," but that the claimant ultimately bears the burden of proving his or her claim.
In ruling against Penrod, the Court noted that he "was expressly advised at the hearing to be on the look out at his mother's address for letters from SSA concerning the consultative exams and that such exams would be expedited. Thereafter, for unexplained reasons, he left Florida for parts unknown without leaving any contact information." As a result, the Court ruled that any deficiencies in the record were based on Penrod's failings and reversal of the ALJ's decision was not warranted because it was based on substantial evidence.
While courts have provided varying interpretations of the degree to which it is an ALJ's responsibility to develop the record in a Social Security disability case, a disability claimant can avoid the issue altogether by submitting full, accurate and up to date medical records and other evidence for consideration by an ALJ An experienced Social Security disability lawyer can aid a client in this process by identifying and helping to gather the evidence, by reviewing the claims file and by identifying and collecting necessary medical evidence before a hearing.
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