Can this Case be Won? Episode Seventeen

This feature appears from time to time as a means of illustrating the challenges that many applicants for social security disability benefits experience, in their efforts to be approved. Cases are derived from actual clients but their names, details and key facts are changed to protect privacy.

Authored by Cheryl Coon

“I loved my work, but it’s downright dangerous for me to continue it”

John was a fifty-seven year old man with two decades of experience as a ferryboat operator.  His trim build suggested good health.  Like many people, his disability was invisible.  He suffered from unpredictable symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.  Most of the time his symptoms were manageable but during flares, he suffered from painful abdominal cramping and an urgent need to use the bathroom.  His flares occurred at least twice a year and lasted several weeks at a time.  But even when he wasn’t having a flare, his symptoms were chronic and, as a result, he often felt fatigued.  The most effective medication made him drowsy.  He also suffered from osteoarthritis in his knees, but his doctor felt that this did not really stop him from working.

The Lawyer’s View

John’s case posed some difficult challenges.

His excellent work history was important for his credibility at the hearing.  But like many folks with IBS, he had hidden his symptoms from friends and family and there weren’t many folks who could testify as to how it limited him.  His functional limitations were few but he needed access to a bathroom at all times and the ability to go off duty as soon as he needed to and for as long as he needed to.

What happened?

Over two years after applying, John’s case was finally in front of an administrative law judge.  His physician wrote a supportive letter, stating that John had to have ready access to a bathroom.  At John’s age, the legal question is whether he can do his past work and if not, whether he had any skills learned from that job that would allow him to do other jobs.  Social Security had found that he could not return to his past work, but that he did have transferable skills to tugboat operator, quartermaster and submersible pilot.  It would require cross-examination of the vocational expert at the hearing, as well as thorough testimony from John to build a case for the impossibility of doing any of these jobs, for the same reasons he could not do his work as a ferryboat operator.  It simply wasn’t safe for the vessel or crew to have a captain who unpredictably would need to be off duty.

We won the case.