Federal Magistrate Orders Third Disability Hearing for Florida Woman with Fibromyalgia
We have discussed the problems faced by individuals with fibromyalgia in obtaining disability benefits. The problem is so bad that even when a judge issues explicit instructions to Social Security with respect to assessing fibromyalgia, the agency still refuses to follow the law. Unfortunately, in many cases the only remedy for the victim is to go back to Social Security for yet another hearing.
This exact scenario played out in an ongoing Florida disability case, Ramirez v. Commissioner of Social Security. The plaintiff is a 50-year-old woman who applied for disability benefits nearly eight years ago. In her application, the plaintiff cited a number of impairments that prevent her from working, including fibromyalgia.
Following a hearing in 2014, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) denied the plaintiff’s application for disability benefits. A key reason was the ALJ gave “little weight” to the plaintiff’s reported fibromyalgia symptoms. But in 2017, a federal magistrate judge in Tampa ordered a second hearing, finding the ALJ improperly focused on “testing and other objective evidence which … is inappropriate in the context of a fibromyalgia diagnosis.” The judge therefore directed the ALJ to pay greater attention to the “subjective evidence” available.
However, after the second hearing in 2018, the same ALJ again ruled the plaintiff did not legally qualify for disability benefits. A second round of appeals followed. And in a May 2020 decision, the same magistrate judge again found the ALJ failed to do his job. Despite the magistrate’s previous remand order, the ALJ “failed to discuss the subjective nature of fibromyalgia” when reviewing the plaintiff’s testimony regarding her fibromyalgia, as well as the expert opinions offered by her healthcare providers.
Indeed, the plaintiff’s treating physician of more than 20 years told the ALJ that the plaintiff was “totally disabled” and therefore “unable to hold any type of meaningful work.” The ALJ insisted these conclusions were “inconsistent” with the doctor’s own examination notes. But the magistrate said the ALJ was not providing a “complete picture.” To the contrary, the doctor’s “voluminous office visit notes” showed that despite receiving a wide range of treatments, the plaintiff continued to experience “chronic diffuse pain involving multiple areas of the body.” The magistrate therefore re-ordered the ALJ to properly weigh this evidence in assessing the plaintiff’s disability case for a third time.
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By its very nature, fibromyalgia is impossible to diagnose using traditional clinical testing. That does not make fibromyalgia any less real–or less debilitating for its victims. Yet despite all this, Social Security ALJ’s continue to improperly insist that disability applicants present “objective” evidence that simply does not exist. And as the case above demonstrates, it may take 2 or 3 hearings before Social Security gets the message.