District Court Recognizes ALJ Error, Remands for Benefits

Empire Justice Center July 31, 2018

According to the latest SSA data, federal courts reverse unfavorable Social Security decisions almost 50% of the time. In only 2% of cases, however, does the District Court reverse for payment of benefits. We congratulate Emilia Sicilia of the Urban Justice Center for being part of the 2%!


Emilia’s case, Smith v. Berryhill, concerned the singular issue of disability onset date and turned on a limited number of facts and items of evidence.  The Commissioner partially denied Smith’s claim for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, finding him disabled only as of January 29, 2015, instead of his application date of June 11, 2013.  The onset date determination was based on a finding that on January 29, 2015, Smith purportedly experienced a reduction in his ability to stay on task, from 10 to 15 percent, a restriction that was found to preclude all work.    Smith appealed the finding of non-disability for the period of June 11, 2013, to January 29, 2015.


The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) based the onset date determination on two specific items, each of which related back to a prior time period. The first was a treating source assessment that was signed on January 29, 2015, but was based on more than two years of treatment and contained an opinion that Smith needed a highly supportive environment for at least one year prior.  The second item was a letter confirming Smith’s residence in supportive housing; the placement began in June 2013, but the letter bore a fax transmission date of January 15, 2015.  The ALJ had relied heavily on the need for supportive housing as indicative of a lower level of functioning.  The problem is that the ALJ inaccurately identified the date.


The Commissioner agreed with Smith that the ALJ committed factual error.  Specifically, the Commissioner conceded the ALJ was incorrect in finding that Smith began living in supportive housing in January 2015, when in fact it was much earlier. But the Commissioner persisted in arguing that some evidence could have shown Smith was not disabled during the June 2013 to January 2015 time period.


District Court Judge Nina Gershon of the EDNY had no problem correcting the error below. In a one paragraph decision, the Court reversed the Commissioner’s finding and directed SSI benefits be paid from July 2013, one month after the original application date.  Great job, Emilia, on a terrific outcome for your disabled client.