Summary: this case involved the claim of a 52 year old woman with PTSD arising from multiple instances of sexual abuse when she was in the military. Subsequently she developed insulin dependent diabetes and associated complications.
Claimant: 52 year old female
Past Work: bill collector, supervisor at counseling center, supervisor at children’s group home, substitute teacher
Education: college degree
Background: My client filed for disability based on unrelenting psychological trauma that arose from multiple incidents of sexual abuse while she was in the military. According to my client, a male superior continuously harassed and raped her during the 2 years she was on active duty, and he has continued to try to contact her for well over 20 years. My client says that she reported this conduct but that the military did not help her. She further states that until about 10 years ago, she got little help from the Veteran’s Administration, although within the last few years has been declared service connected disabled under VA rules.
In addition to the PTSD, my client has developed hard to control insulin dependent diabetes and must inject herself with insulin 4 times per day. She indicates that she has occasional blurred vision, numbness in her hands and feet, and high blood pressure.
My client last worked in 2001, which is her claimed onset date. She is last insured for Title II disability in 2005, meaning that we will need to prove that she became disabled prior to the spring of 2005 to qualify her for SSDI benefits.
Factors in our favor included:
- extensive VA records documenting PTSD
- extensive documentation regarding diabetes and difficulty getting it under control
Factors not in our favor included:
- delay in applying for benefits – the judge asked my client why she waited 10 years to apply and she was not able to give a sound reason
- no documentation showing that my client did report the harassment to the military, although I believe that the judge found her story credible
- inability get a completed functional capacity form from the VA
Jonathan’s hearing strategy: Knowing the judge assigned to this case, I felt that the medical record would be the most important factor in this case. I also felt that my client would need to testify convincingly about the abuse done to her and would need to explain what she has been doing over the past 10+ years.
Hearing Report: the judge opened the hearing by introducing himself and the vocational witness. He asked me for an opening statement, which I provided. He then began questioning my client.
As I suspected the judge asked my client why she waited so long to apply for disability. My client did not answer this question clearly – she talked about “trying to get better” and “surviving” but probably could have done a better job explaining the delay. In other cases where there is a delay of several years between a claimant’s last work and applying for disability, a good explanation might be that the claimant did not know about Social Security’s disability program or that his/her condition qualified.
The judge then asked my client about each of her past jobs – exactly what did she do and why did she leave. Not every judge does this, but this line of questioning is common for the judge assigned to our case.
The judge then turned the questioning over to me. I began by asking my client about the sexual abuse that gave rise to her PTSD. She gave a harrowing story of repeated and constant abuse by a superior in the military and her response to it. She explained that she rarely could get a full night’s sleep, that triggers such as smells, a man’s voice, a military uniform, etc. might put her in panic mode. She testified that her attacker’s actions have “ruined her life” and that her goal day to day is survival.
We also talked about her diabetes and the complications she was experiencing, specifically the numbness in her hands and feet, vision issues and headaches.
At several times during the testimony my client became tearful and visibly upset and had difficulty putting her thoughts into words.
After I finished, the judge asked a few followup questions then turned to the vocational expert witness:
Q: Please describe and classify the claimant’s past work.
A: The claimant has had 4 different jobs:
- collection specialist – sedentary, semi-skilled
- group home specialist – medium, low end semi-skilled
- senior center manager – sedentary, skilled
- substitute teacher – light, skilled
Q: Please consider the following hypotheticals involving an individual who is the same age as the claimant with the same education and work background:
I. this person is limited to medium work with the following non-exertional impairments:
- can understand short, simple instructions
- no detailed instructions
- can maintain attention and concentration for up to 2 hours at a time
- can complete a workday without interruption from psychological symptoms
- can perform work at a consistent pace without unreasonable breaks
- should have limited contact with the public and co-workers
- should have limited contact with supervisors but can accept constructive criticism
- can respond appropriately to changes in the work setting
- can set goals, make plans independently of others
- such a person could not perform past work since all of that is semi-skilled or skilled and the limitation to simple instructions would preclude semi-skilled or skilled work
- such a person could perform a variety of medium, unskilled jobs (and he gave examples)
II. Same as hypothetical I but person is limited to light work
- no past work for same reasons as above
- such a person could perform a variety of light, unskilled jobs (and he gave examples)
III. Same as hypothetical II but assume that this person would miss 1 day per week because of medical or psychological symptoms
VE: such a person could not perform past work or any other work
IV. (posed by me) – Same as hypothetical II but assume that up to 3 days a week, this person would experience up to 2 hours of non-productive time because of medical or psychological symptoms
VE: such a person could not perform past work or any other work
Analysis: I think that the judge’s decision in this case will turn primarily on how the judge evaluates my client’s credibility. One one hand, I think that anyone would recognize that PTSD would arise from a situation where a young woman was repeatedly harassed and raped by a superior, especially when the perpetrator has continued to torment her over decades. On the other hand, my client has no written evidence that she reported these incidents and she has no good explanation why she waited over 10 years to file an application for disability. I think that one could argue that a person who has been through what my client has been through might not always act logically, especially when dealing with an institution (the government) that has protected her attacker.