In Social Security claims, age most often comes into play in determining a person's eligibility for retirement benefits. But age can also be an important factor in determining whether a person is eligible for Social Security disability benefits. In Oberg v. Astrue, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explains how those who review disability claims should account for both a claimant's age and any previous disability benefits claims.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Plaintiff Deborah Oberg's Social Security disability claim for the period ending on July 31, 2003. Plaintiff then filed another claim, asserting disability for the period covering May 23, 2003 to June 30, 2005. The SSA also denied this claim. Following a hearing before an SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the ALJ determined that Ogden is not disabled for benefits purposes.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit explained that the SSA's decision on Plaintiff's first claim "is res judicata and creates a presumption that she was not disabled for the present period." Although this presumption does not apply where an ALJ reopens a decision on a prior period of disability, the Court found that this exception was not warranted in the present matter because the ALJ "made it clear that he was not reopening the prior decision when he plainly stated that the presumption would apply and also pointed out that nothing had changed since the prior adjudication." That the ALJ considered the record of the prior decision did not mean that he reopened the prior disability period, according to the Court.
Nevertheless, the Court found that the ALJ erred in failing to note that Plaintiff changed age categories after the first decision. The SSA sorts disability benefits claimants into specific age categories which it then uses to determine the claimant's ability to perform work in spite of any physical or mental limitations. A claimant under 50, for example, is considered a "younger person." Between 50 and 54, a claimant is a "person closely approaching advanced age" and even if the medical condition remains the same the Medical -Vocational Guidelines (usually referred to as the "Grids") may direct a finding of disabled in the oldre age category and not the younger.
In this case, Plaintiff went from being classified as a "younger person" to a "person closely approaching advanced age" during the time between her first and second claims. "A change in age category is material for the purposes of determining a person's ability to do other work in the economy," the Court held, adding that the age category change could have altered various aspects of the ALJ's decision including the residual functional capacity determination and vocational expert testimony.
Indeed, SSA regulations provide "[i]f you are closely approaching advanced age (age 50-54), we will consider that your age along with a severe impairment(s) and limited work experience may seriously affect your ability to adjust to other work." As a result, the Court remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings, taking the claimant's age category into account.
In addition to helping a client gather the necessary evidence to support a claim and filing it on the client's behalf, an experienced Social Security disability lawyer can bring to light issues such as the client's age, which may be overlooked by the SSA and its ALJs. It is not unusual for us to point this out to an ALJ in a pre-hearing memo and remind him that a finding of disability can be made from a date different than the original date claimed.
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